Acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a fatal disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Believed to have originated in Africa, AIDS has become an epidemic, infecting tens of millions of people worldwide. The virus, which is transmitted from one individual to another through the exchange of body fluids (such as blood or semen), attacks white blood cells, thereby causing the body to lose its capacity to ward off infection. As a result, many AIDS patients die of opportunistic infections that strike their debilitated bodies. AIDS first appeared in the United States in 1981, primarily among homosexuals and intravenous drug users who shared needles, but throughout the world, it is also transmitted by heterosexual contact. Today, scientists are hopeful that AIDS can be managed by new drugs, such as protease inhibitors, and need not be fatal. (See AZT.)
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