AIDS in 1969

Fascinating story from the Washington Post about a boy who died of what seems to be AIDS in 1969, more than a decade before it was identified as a disease and an epidemic started.

The 16-year-old boy had the kind of illness that wouldn’t be familiar to doctors for years: He was weak and emaciated, rife with stubborn infections and riddled with rare cancerous lesions known as Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin disease found in elderly men of Mediterranean descent.

The boy, Robert Rayford, died on May 15, 1969, in St. Louis. It would be more than a decade before doctors started seeing similar cases among gay men in New York and California. In 1982, with the numbers of sick surging, the disease got a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The AIDS epidemic had begun.

istock-687639914The doctors who treated Rayford saved some of their samples.

Little of that seemed to point to an obscure Midwestern medical mystery almost 15 years earlier. But for Rayford’s doctors, the descriptions of AIDS rang a bell. In 1984, Witte published a letter in a journal noting the similarities with Rayford’s history. In 1985, when a test became available that could detect HIV antibodies, Elvin-Lewis packed some of her long-held samples in dry ice and shipped them to Witte, who had them tested by Robert Garry, a Tulane virologist. Garry tested for nine distinct HIV proteins. Rayford’s blood showed evidence of all nine.

There will probably never be real proof that Rayford had the same virus (or something very close to it) but it seems pretty likely that this was the case. It shouldn’t be that hard to believe that HIV was around for quite some time before it began spreading at an alarming rate. I wonder if medical records contain other strange illnesses that in retrospect, were the early signs of what was to come in the 1980s and beyond.

It also makes you wonder what’s lurking out there now, causing the occasional illness or death but not recognized as a potential mass killer.

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