The History of HIV Treatment


Ron Trible, MD, Ph.D.

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HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body’s immune system and makes it more likely for someone to develop infections or infection-related cancers. If untreated, HIV develops into AIDS, the last stage of the virus. Fortunately, since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, treatment for HIV has come a long way. Today, people with HIV can live long, full lives if they follow their treatment regimen.

First Steps to Understanding the Infection

Prior to the development of effective treatment, HIV infection was, for most patients, a fatal disease. However, in the mid-1980s, a massive worldwide research effort began, first to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS, and then to find medicines that could treat this virus. Eventually, scientists began to figure out how to slow the AIDS epidemic. In March of 1987, the first HIV treatment drug, zidovudine (AZT), was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While this single medication helped slow the progression of HIV infection for some people, it did not work well on its own and was quite toxic at the high doses used—it was originally designed to be a chemotherapy drug. Ultimately, the HIV virus inevitably and rapidly developed mutations that were resistant to AZT; in essence, the virus learned to create another version of itself that couldn’t be treated with AZT, so this key treatment was no longer effective for many patients. Other medications similar to AZT were created, but many of these had severe and crippling side effects. It was clear that more and better treatment options were sorely needed.

Thanks to years of research and discoveries, we know a lot more about HIV than we did decades ago. Keep yourself safe and healthy by knowing the facts about HIV.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Oct 23, 2015