The deadly disease first broke out in the homosexual communities of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Later, it cropped up among heroin addicts, Haitian refugees and victims of hemophilia. And now, public-health experts fear, the epidemic has spread to infants and even unwary patients receiving blood transfusions. With each new case, they have become more alarmed — particularly because the cause of the illness is unknown.
Experts call the new disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), meaning a breakdown in the body’s natural defenses that often leads to fatal forms of cancer and lethal bouts of infection. AIDS was first recognized in 1981. The Centers for Disease Control have now documented 827 cases, with 312 deaths, around the United States. The 38 percent mortality rate makes the disease as menacing as smallpox once was and considerably more deadly than such recent baffling epidemics as Legionnaire’s disease and toxic shock syndrome. Dr. Henry Masur of the National Institutes of Health notes that none of the victims he has studied has lived more than 18 months. “Once they develop a severe case of the disease, I suspect they all die,” he says.