26 Years Of Remembering: Why World AIDS Day Still Matters


December 1, 1988 was the first World AIDS Day. 26 years later, there is still so much to learn and do. One of the best ways you can take action today, and every day, is to educate yourself about the history of the disease, and the activists who have fought so hard for action, awareness, and a cure. Today we’re honoring those who gave their lives in the fight for an AIDS-free generation.

+ June 5, 1981


Photo: The first report of what would turn out to be HIV/AIDS (Getty)

Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report publishes the first mention of what later is determined to be HIV in young men in Los Angeles. In the report, the scientists refer to the disease as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and claimed it targeted “homosexuals.”

+ January 1982

+ Watch One Of The Earliest Reports Of The Illness

+The first American AIDS clinic is established in San Francisco.

+ September 24, 1982

Photo: Dr. Paul Volberding, right, helps explain Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1982 (PBS/Dr. Paul Volberding)

The CDC uses the term “AIDS” (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) for the first time, and releases the first case definition of AIDS: “a disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known case for diminished resistance to that disease.”

+ 1985

Photo: A 1985 cover of Life Magazine (Life Magazine)

Scientists identify HIV as the cause of AIDS, while western scientists became aware that AIDS was widespread in parts of Africa, and beloved actor Rock Hudson dies from AIDS related causes.

+ 1987


The AIDS Memorial Quilt is established by longtime activist Cleve Jones. It has now become the world’s largest piece of folk art, with over 48,000 panels. When we asked him about his inspiration for the quilt, Cleve said: “I was so overwhelmed by the need to break from the stupidity and bigotry that surrounded the disease and to humanize it,” he said. “Say the word quilt to yourself and what does it make you think of? When I say the word quilt, I think of my grandma, or my great-grandma, back in Bee Ridge, Indiana. And it’s a very, sort of middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values sort of symbol, so that was the genesis of the idea.”

+ December 1, 1988

The World Health Organization (WHO) declares December 1 to be the first World AIDS Day.

+ April 8, 1990

Photo: Sir Elton John and AIDS activist Ryan White (Getty)

+ Watch Elton John Discuss His Friend Ryan White.

Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion as a child, passes away. Ryan became a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS research after he was banned from his school for having the disease.

+ 1991

Photo: Actress Angelina Jolie donning a red ribbon. (Getty)

Singer Paul Jabara starts the Red Ribbon Foundation, which begins distributing ribbons as a symbol of support for those living with HIV/AIDS.

+ November 7, 1991

Photo: Earvin “Magic” Johnson announcing he is HIV positive at a press conference (Getty).

American basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announces that he is HIV-positive. He is one of the first major public figures to come forward saying they have the disease. Due to advanced treatment options, as well as awareness, Magic Johnson is still alive and well today.

+ 1993

Photo: Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in “Philadelphia” (Getty).

The film “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer with AIDS, opens in theaters. Based on a true story, it is the first major Hollywood film about AIDS. Hanks would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

+ Watch The Trailer For “Philadephia.”

+ 1994

Rent CD
Photo: The soundtrack to the musical “Rent.”

The rock opera “Rent” opens off-Broadway in New York. The show is an adaption of Puccini’s “La Boheme” but replaces the original’s tragic illness with HIV. The play was a smash hit, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, and later being adapted for film. + Watch Seasons Of Love From “Rent.”

+ 1994

Photo: Pedro Zamora (MTV)

Pedro Zamora, a young gay man living with HIV, appears on the cast of MTV’s popular show, “The Real World.” He died on November 11, 1994 at age 22. Pedro was often quoted as saying, “I’m a person living with AIDS and I’ll be living with AIDS until I take my last breath.”

+ 1995 – 1999

There were major breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS testing and treatment during this time, including the “first protease inhibitor, a new class of drugs for treating HIV, the first home-use AIDS test kit, the first antigen test kit to screen blood donors for HIV-1.” For many people, this was the beginning of AIDS being a medically manageable disease. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for lower income people and folks in the developing world, who are unable to access these often financially unattainable medications.

+ 2006

Bono-InstaPhoto: Bono announcing his (RED) campaign (Getty).

(RED) is founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to get businesses and people involved in the fight against AIDS. The campaign includes famous Gap (Red) shirts, iPods, and other merchandise.  

+ 2010

ObamaSigns-InstaPhoto: President Obama signs the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (Getty).

Newly elected President Barack Obama calls for the development of the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States.

+ December 1, 2014


Photo: World AIDS Day is honored all over the world, including Kolata, India (Getty).

It’s been 26 years since the first World AIDS Day, and over 39 million people have died of AIDS since the first reported cases in 1981. The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is an “AIDS-Free generation is within our reach.” Leaders from around the world are pledging to work to finally end the cycle of HIV infections. In a statement last night, President Obama said: “We will win this battle, but it is not over yet. In memory of the loved ones we have lost and on behalf of our family members, friends, and fellow citizens of the world battling HIV/AIDS, we resolve to carry on the fight and end stigma and discrimination toward people living with this disease. At this pivotal moment, let us work together to bring this pandemic to an end.” So, what are you going to do to make an AIDS-free generation a reality? Check out the action links below.


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