The mystery of HIV

Only five men were listed in the first official recognition of what would become a worldwide pandemic: five gay men from Los Angeles with a rare pneumonia who were described in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of June 5, 1981. The first cause suspected was “poppers,” nitrite inhalants popular with gay men.

Harold W. Jaffe, M.D., told the story of solving the “medical mystery” that was HIV at the Beaumont Medical Club Lecture on October 26. The associate director of science at the CDC described working as an epidemic intelligence officer on a disorder that did not yet have a name.

Through detective work that included tracing webs of sexual partners, Jaffe and his colleagues recognized that the illness was spread through sexual contact and contaminated blood products.

“Sometimes we think of public health as kind of mechanical and dry, but it isn’t,” said Jaffe, who also screened depictions of himself in And the Band Played On, a 1993 movie about the AIDS crisis. The story of AIDS, Jaffe said, shows the “power of the epidemiological method to understand and control a disease even before we knew the cause.”