How is HIV different from AIDS?

This year marks 31 years since AIDS was first recognized by the CDC. News of the highly-fatal AIDS epidemic was initially met with profound concern, panic and confusion.  Still today, there are plenty of misconceptions about what HIV and AIDS are, and who is affected.  In honor of World AIDS Day (this Friday, December 1st), we’ll provide an abbreviated history of the discovery of HIV and AIDS, discuss how they’re different, and talk about how you can get tested for FREE!

AIDS and HIV: History

In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received several reports of Karposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer, among young gay men. This wave of cases was highly unusual as Karposi’s sarcoma was typically seen in those with severely comprised immune systems and the elderly. Suspecting that there may be other factors at-play, the CDC began an outbreak investigation. At this stage of the epidemic, there was no identifiable cause, transmission remained a mystery. There was also no single name for the phenomenon. Various organizations referred to it with different names, among them “gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID).  As the epidemic spread, it became clear that several groups were affected, including injection drug users, hemophiliacs and Haitians.  The CDC proposed using a unifying name for the condition, as there was mounting evidence that it was not limited to the gay community. In 1982, with over 400 cases reported globally, the CDC proposed the term “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or (AIDS). At the same time, cases of mother-to-child transmissions of AIDS were reported, and a child who had received blood transfusions also appeared to have developed AIDS. Additionally, cases of AIDS among women who reported having sex with men were recorded. All of these cases provided evidence that an infectious agent was likely responsible for AIDS, and suggested several possible routes of transmission: through blood, breast milk, and sexual activity. After years of intense investigation and research, the idea that AIDS was transmitted through an infectious agent was still a theory, yet to be confirmed.

A breakthrough in research, Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier isolated viruses thought to cause AIDS – initially named HTLV and LAV. In 1986, at least five years after AIDS cases were initially reported, the name for the virus that causes AIDS was born: “Human Immunodeficiency Virus”, or HIV.


The history of AIDS and HIV helps clarify how and why they’re different. AIDS refers to a syndrome, meaning the presence of clinical features or phenomena (example:  weakened immune system), and what was initially seen and reported. In contrast, HIV is the virus responsible for causing AIDS.  HIV is a necessary but not sufficient cause of AIDS. In other words, HIV infection always precedes AIDS, but HIV doesn’t always develop into AIDS. HIV can be detected with a variety of tests that identify either HIV itself or circulating HIV antibodies. AIDS diagnosis is more complicated, and requires the presence of certain signs and symptoms, such as decreased white blood cell count and certain  AIDS-defining illnesses.

HIV Testing

In honor of World AIDS Day, UNC Counseling and Wellness Services will host a FREE, walk-in HIV testing event in the Carolina Union from 11AM-5PM on November 30th! Please see our event page for more information. Additionally, at UNC Campus Health Services, we offer a rapid oral test (results available in about 20 minutes), and a blood test. More information about HIV testing at UNC is available on the Campus Health webpage; for more information about making an HIV appointment with the Sexual Wellness Specialists (formerly CHECS) by calling 919.966.3658.

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