HIV named 30 years ago


Sunday was an important day, and I missed it. It was the 30th birthday of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Not the virus itself, obviously, which had been around for decades. Just the name.

That chronology of thing-first/name-second reminds me of the history of homosexuality, which seems apropos. Same-sex attraction had been common since the dawn of time but was only given a name in the late 19th century. Then it became something that could be dissected, discussed, treated. It became a legitimate, identifiable threat to mainstream straight folks, not like the vague sin of “sodomy” that anyone was guilty of committing.

I digress.

On May 1, 1986, the journal Nature published a letter from a team of researchers struggling to come up with a name for the virus that causes AIDS (which went through its own nomenclature crisis and was once known by the charming acronym GRID, or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease). The virus had been identified by researchers three years earlier, but it took them until 1986 to prove that it was the cause of AIDS. And thus, they needed a name.

The letter was entitled “What to call the AIDS virus?”, and it listed seven issues related to their decision to go with “HIV”. Among the more interesting was issue #2:

(2) Though the name should clearly link the viruses to the disease with which they are associated, it should not incorporate the term “AIDS”, which many clinicians urged us to avoid.

The scientists didn’t bother to explain why they were urged to avoid referencing AIDS in the virus’ name. Was there uncertainty in the scientific community about the link between HIV and AIDS? There still is today, though not among reputable scientists. Or were the clinicians trying to distinguish between AIDS-related opportunistic infections that already had perfectly good names like encephalopathy and Kaposi’s sarcoma and the virus that opened the door to those infections?

Maybe I’m being nice, maybe I’m being too naive about the heterosexism and homophobia that ran rampant in the medical community of the day, but I choose to believe the latter.

Anyway, happy birthday, HIV. Here’s hoping that you live to see very, very few more, you little, microscopic asshole.

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