Starting in 1981, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began to detect a pattern in the spread of a mysterious illness that was affecting primarily homosexual men. The common denominator of this illness, other than its prevalence in the gay community, which was proving fatal and highly communicable, was the radical effect it had on the immune systems of those who had been infected. This disease became know as AIDS, for Acquired Immune Defiency Syndrome. As the disease spread throughout the gay community, especially in the Bay Area of California (San Francisco had a very large concentration of gay men), that community began to mobilize politically to compel the federal government to invest the resources necessary to improve detection and treatment of the disease and, hopefully, to eventually develop a vaccine to prevent it.
While AIDS continued to spread, the administration of President Ronald Reagan was being heavily criticized by the gay community and its supporters for ignoring the problem. As investigators specializing in the tracking of the origins of infectious diseases began to zero in on Africa as its likely birthplace, and as more and more of the gay community became infected, political pressure mounted on the Reagan Administration to become more active in the struggle against AIDS. Many gays were convinced that the Reagan Administration was homophobic and not inclined to be sympathetic to homosexuals suffering from a deadly disease passed through transmission of fluids. The growing number of cases traced to intravenous drug users -- i.e., heroin addicts -- further cemented the image some Americans of AIDS as a disease only affecting certain marginal categories of people.
In the meantime, AIDS began to ravage large numbers of individuals in Africa, and over time began to be seen increasingly as an international problem warranting far greater governmental involvement. President Reagan's 1986 letter to Congress establishing AIDS prevention and treatment as a priority for the federal government elevated its political importance. Since then, the United States has been a world leader in spending on AIDS-related research and treatment.
Throughout the 1980s, the only serious attention being focused on the research into AIDS and its precursor condition, HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, was the research being conducted by the CDC, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and medical research clinics in France. The increased, if overdue, attention on the part of the Reagan and all subsequent U.S. presidential administrations to HIV/AIDS research and treatment paved the way for far greater international attention, especially by the United Nations and its subordinate agencies like the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the U.N. Development Programme, and the World Health Organization.
The leadership of the United States was important in focusing the developed world on the issue of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa.