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40 years since 'unusual' diagnosis of Spain's first AIDS patient in Barcelona

35-year-old with Kaposi's sarcoma died not long after being hospitalized at Vall d'Hebron

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08 October 2021 04:48 PM

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ACN|Barcelona

Spain's first AIDS patient was diagnosed at Barcelona's Vall d'Hebron hospital 40 years ago this month.

"It was an unusual diagnosis," recalls Dr. Carmen Navarro, who at the time was the head of neuropathology at Vall d'Hebron.

The 35-year-old man had Kaposi's sarcoma, a lesion-causing skin cancer common amongst HIV/AIDS patients as well as various opportunistic infections, and had lost a considerable amount of weight over the six months prior.

After complaining of severe headaches, his medical team discovered what was initially thought to be a brain tumor but actually turned out to be AIDS-related parasitic toxoplasmosis. The man was taken into emergency surgery but passed away four days later.

"It was very rare," Navarro, who was in charge of the man's brain autopsy, told the Catalan News Agency. "Toxoplasmosis was not common in the adults. At the time, we'd see it, infrequently, in newborns."

Many people, the retired doctor explains, did not believe her at first. But after confirming the diagnosis — before the term AIDS had even been coined — with both an optical and an electron microscope, which came around the time of the first reported cases of Kaposi's sarcoma among gay men in California and New York, Navarro began working on a paper that would be published in The Lancet a year later.

Vall d'Hebron doctors were the first to establish a link between cerebral toxoplasmosis and AIDS, a key discovery that helped medical professionals diagnose other patients as well as develop treatments.

The current head of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Vall d'Hebron, Dr. Magda Campins, worked with HIV/AIDS patients at Vall d'Hebron 37 years ago. "Every time someone was diagnosed, we would carry out contact tracing. HIV was very stigmatized back then and telling their contacts and family members was very difficult," Campins remembers.

"The association of the disease with the gay community and homophobia stigmatized patients," she says. "Disinformation and the lack of answers from the scientific community didn't help stop society's rejection."

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  • Dr. Magda Campins, who carried out contact tracing of HIV/AIDS patients at Vall d'Hebron in the 80s (by Laura Fíguls)

  • Dr. Magda Campins, who carried out contact tracing of HIV/AIDS patients at Vall d'Hebron in the 80s (by Laura Fíguls)

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