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Outbreak of rare cancer baffles doctors

The Story

Something alarming is happening to gay men in big American cities in the early 80s. Doctors are reporting dozens of young homosexual men with severely compromised immune systems and rare diseases like Kaposi's Sarcoma, a skin cancer that normally afflicts elderly men. Nobody can explain it, and heads are turning at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. There's only one such case in Canada so far. But as we hear in this report from CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks, doctors are wondering if it's the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Medium: Radio
Program: Quirks & Quarks
Broadcast Date: Dec. 5, 1981
Guest: James Curran
Host: Jay Ingram
Duration: 5:31

Did You know?

• By 1978 gay men in the United States and Europe and heterosexuals in Africa and Haiti began showing signs of what eventually became known as AIDS. Because it was first noticed in homosexuals in the United States, the disease was unofficially known as the "gay plague." In 1981 it was referred to as "gay-related immune deficiency" (GRID). In December 1982 officials learned of a case of AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion and the term was dropped.

• The disease became known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) in 1982. ("Acquired" means you can catch it; "immune deficiency" means a weakness in the body's system that fights diseases; a "syndrome" is a group of health problems that make up a disease.)

• AIDS does not kill anyone directly. Instead, by weakening the immune system it leaves the body vulnerable to "opportunistic infections" — infections that are rarely seen in healthy people but can be deadly for someone with AIDS.

• Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS) is a rare malignant tumour of the skin found in immuno-suppressed patients. Doctors were particularly baffled by the surge in cases because cancer is generally not contagious, yet the patients had both geographic location (big American cities) and sexual preference in common. The patients also seemed to have a particularly severe form of KS, with lesions forming on internal organs as well as all parts of the skin.

• In addition to KS, doctors found many patients had pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), an opportunistic infection associated with terminal cancer patients. Yet many of the young men had PCP without cancer and were otherwise healthy.

• The first medical journal to pick up on the AIDS story was Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Volume 30, No. 21, published on June 5, 1981. It told the story of five homosexual men who were exposed to something that weakened their immune system.

• The first mainstream mention of the disease came in the July 3, 1981 edition of the New York Times in an article titled, "Rare cancer seen in 41 Homosexuals."
• This Quirks & Quarks report is the earliest reference to the disease in the CBC Archives.


The Early Years of the AIDS Crisis more