40 years of HIV: This is how these Philadelphians experienced the crisis and what they’ve done to help

Miguel Cumba never thought he would find himself in the middle of a health crisis when he decided to work in the healthcare field. The retired registered nurse recalls collective fear and confusion after HIV was announced to the public in the early 1980s. 

“It was kind of explained to the public, but people were still fearful. Just like COVID, you know,” Cumba said. “When I first started, everybody was very fearful. They thought some of it only applied to certain people. Not us, not me.” 

It’s been 40 years since HIV was identified as the virus causing AIDS. Many Philadelphians have dedicated years of their lives to fighting it. In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported five cases of a deadly fungal disease called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and later a lesion-causing cancer called Kaposi Sarcoma in previously healthy young men. But it wasn’t until three years later, in 1984, that HIV was identified as the virus causing AIDS, giving the medical community — and the rest of the world — one answer to the many questions the crisis had raised.

Up to 50 percent of gay men in cities across the United States were infected initially, according to a June 2000 report by the British Medical Journal. The initial belief that HIV could only affect homosexual individuals led to the stigmatization of the LGBTQ community, and at times, medical negligence, Cumba says. But once influential figures like basketball star Magic Johnson started speaking up about their diagnosis, the public’s perception of who is at risk started to shift.

“They [health care providers] weren’t working fast enough,” Cumba said. “But once it started to go to the heterosexual population and babies, then it started to pick up. You know, clinics started to open up and, back then, there weren’t a whole lot of clinics to help these people.”

In the late 1980s, AIDS was also the leading cause of death in New York City, according to the National Research Council. Before Dr. Billie Swiggard specialized in infectious diseases, she was following her dream of becoming an actress in New York City in the early 1980s. Many of Swiggard’s friends lost their lives to the disease, but one death in particular caused her to completely redirect her life, she said. 

Swiggard’s intimate friend and fellow actor developed skin lesions, severe wasting, and eventually blindness before he died “a horrific death,” according to Swiggard. Her dear friend passed away in November 1982, before the virus causing the devastating disease was identified. Her loss and desire to understand what had caused her friend’s death led her to shift her career path and go back to school to finish an undergraduate degree in chemistry. 

“This was a mission to do what I could to fight back against this virus that had killed a number of people that I love,” Swiggard said. She decided to go back to school and major in chemistry. She obtained her Master’s Degree at Cornell Medical College and her Ph.D. at Rockefeller University.

“I actually did HIV research for several years. And for the last 17 or 18 years, I’ve left academia and I’ve been doing full-time clinical care,” Swiggard said. “One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in all of that is the transformation of an HIV infection from this terrifying plague to a disease that can be managed and successfully treated, usually with just one tablet a day.”

Swiggard now serves as a staff physician at Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused healthcare provider, where she works with underserved communities, she said. She remains passionate about raising awareness about HIV and is an advocate for cost-free access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a treatment that reduces the chances of getting HIV via sex or injection drug use. 

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m kind of a cheerleader for PrEP,” Swiggard said. “I think we should be throwing it out the window at everybody who walks by.” 

The City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health features programs, such as Philly Keep On Loving, which offers free access to PrEP and discrete televisits to uninsured residents. 

Other individuals and organizations in Philadelphia have found ways to serve those living with HIV. Siloam Wellness Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing holistic care through support and discussion groups, retreats, individual counseling support and a food pantry, according to their website.

Many of the Siloam Wellness Center’s members — or as they call them, their “friends” —  have experienced trauma throughout their lives, both before and after their diagnosis, said Sarina Dibianca, the executive director of the Siloam Wellness Center.

Dibianca’s experience working with the HIV-positive demographic has taught her that people’s lack of access to emotional healing can also interfere with their desire to get better. This can lead to them putting their medication at the bottom of their priority list or believing they are not worth taking it at all. At Siloam, their efforts to make people feel worthy begin with showing human kindness, she said.

“When they walk through the doors, the first thing they get is a big hug,” Dibianca said. “And then they say, ‘I haven’t had anybody hug me’ in whatever time frame or ‘I’m not used to this type of kindness.’”

One of their main priorities is prevention care through sporting events, visiting fitness centers, and offering educational talks to young people between 13-24, who are among the most affected, according to HIV.gov. The purpose of these events is to raise awareness about the risk of contracting HIV and educate the youth about the resources available to them. 

Identifying HIV was a great step towards understanding how to treat AIDS. Forty years later, people still fight for their health and their loved ones, but thanks to health professionals and organizations dedicated to serving those affected, they have the opportunity to not fight alone.  And with medication like PrEP, the devastating virus no longer has to be a death sentence.

These Philadelphia-based organizations are dedicated to raising awareness and helping those living with HIV:


2628 Orthodox Street
Philadelphia, PA 19137

Philadelphia AIDS Thrift

710 S. 5th Street

Philadelphia, PA 19147

Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 8p.m.

Sunday: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

AIDS Delaware

Locations vary 

Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 

Friday, 9 a.m.-noon

Prevention Point

2913-15 Kensington Avenue

Philadelphia, PA 19134

Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Friday, noon-5 p.m.


1235 Spring Garden Street

Philadelphia, PA 19123

Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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