Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

A Name for the Plague

July 27, 1982

Almost everybody who had an interest in the situation was represented there that pleasant summer Tuesday in Washington, including gay-community leaders, federal bureaucrats and the investigative team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that had taken a lead role in tracking the situation. What was it? A disease that just 13 months earlier had blipped on the CDC's radar screen was rapidly turning epidemic, particularly among gay men and drug addicts. Yet no one agreed on what to call it.

Because the disease critically weakened the immune system and was often accompanied by a rare cancer, it had been labeled gay-related immune deficiency, or GRID, by some people, gay cancer by others. It wasn't, however, restricted to gays. At the meeting, a less exclusive name was suggested: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The acronym had staying power — as has the epidemic. More than 22 million people worldwide have died of AIDS over the past two decades, and today 42 million others live with the virus that causes it. New medicines have made it possible for those who have the disease to lead productive lives, but there is still no cure.