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In June 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on the small outbreak of a new and perplexing illness among gay men in California. As the outbreak continued to spread, in 1982 the CDC named it Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).   Throughout the early 1980s scientists continued to investigate the causes and transmission of AIDS.  While the disease had been discovered among homosexual men, infections spread throughout other communities as well. In 1983 a virus was determined to be the causal agent, and by 1986 the term Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was introduced into the lexicon.   These were the early years of an epidemic.

RF Response

Long committed to medical research, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) first contributed toward the funding AIDS research in 1987, with a $50,000 grant to conduct a research study on the control of AIDS in Zaire. Since then the RF has consistently funded AIDS-related research. Beginning in 1988 RF has contributed funding toward AIDS Initiatives in Africa, a program jointly administered by the Health Sciences and Population Sciences Divisions. This program seeks to identify the causes of HIV transmission and effective methods of prevention and supports counseling and education programs.

HIV/AIDS Education for Schools

HIV/AIDS Education for Schools, Nairobi, 2001

Forming Partnerships

The RF has long participated in partnerships with the public sector to confront major health issues, including HIV/AIDS. In 1996 RF helped to launch the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, international governments across Europe and North America and corporations, including major pharmaceutical companies. This multifaceted partnership arose from an international meeting in Bellagio, Italy, convened by the RF in 1994. Participants, including AIDS and vaccine researchers, health workers and representatives from the fields of finance and pharmaceutical development, agreed that there was an imperative need for the development of a safe, effective and accessible AIDS vaccine. IAVI continues its research today.

In 2001 another major initiative, the Mother to Child Transmission Plus Initiative (MTCT-Plus) was launched by the RF and partner organizations in response to a United Nations call to action. MTCT-Plus began with a commitment of $100 million to be shared among private foundations and the U.S. Government. The program is based at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and supports programs being carried out in both Africa and Asia. MTCT-Plus focuses on the care of HIV-positive women and their families in the hopes of prolonging the life of mothers and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. MTCT-Plus focuses on entire families, offering health care to women, their partners and their children. Services range from the provision of antiretroviral therapy, to HIV testing, counseling and education. 

New Partnership Models

In many ways the AIDS epidemic has been an impetus for change within the RF. Confronted with a worldwide health crisis, the RF has been at the forefront of forging new paths in philanthropy since the 1990s. Faced with depleted financial resources as a result of the financial crisis of the 1970s, and no abatement in the public health issues facing humanity, the RF has adapted its philanthropic model to accommodate changing times. No better representation of this adaptation exists than the AIDS epidemic. In response to this challenge, the RF has strongly advocated for partnerships between the private and public sectors. Together, these partnerships have pooled significant material resources to confront major challenges, especially in the field of public health. As a leader in this new model of research, the RF continues to play a vital philanthropic role by bringing to the table a century’s worth of influence and experience in public health.