Magic Johnson Celebrates Life 25 Years After HIV Diagnosis

NOVEMBER 07, 2016
Caitlyn Fitzpatrick
“November 7, 1991 was a life changing day that I never saw coming,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson wrote on his site, The Playbook.

That was the day that Johnson was diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Although the acronym still carries a heavy burden, it held even more weight 25 years ago.

Back then it was considered to be a death sentence and a disease called “gay cancer.” Many early diagnoses were traced back to blood transfusions, especially in babies. But Johnson was one of the first straight public figures to come out with the diagnosis – and at the time, he had only been married to his wife, Cookie, for 45 days.

“He said, ‘If you want to leave, you know, I don’t blame you. It’s okay. I understand,” Cookie recalled in an interview on Good Morning America. “Then I said, ‘Are you kidding me? No. I love you. I’m gonna stay here and help you live. I’m gonna stay here and we’re gonna beat this thing. We’re gonna figure out how to beat this thing.”


Twenty-five years and three children later, the couple is still together.

The first antiretroviral drug to treat HIV, zidovudine (AZT), was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1987. However, Johnson ultimately had to retire from the National Basketball League (NBA) in 1996 due to his illness.

Initially, AZT was prescribed as 1,200 mg per day and showed to reduce infection and increase CD4 count. The medication failed to show long-term benefits over placebo. So with that in mind, the dosage was lowered to 600 mg per day. Not only did it show similar anti-HIV effects, but it also had less toxicity.


Since then, remarkable advances have been made in treating HIV. It isn’t the death sentence that it was when Michael Mellman, MD, former team physician with the Lakers, broke the news to Johnson. With the right drug regimen for the right person, patients can achieve undetectable viral loads with very low risk of transmitting the virus to their partners.

The first protease inhibitor was approved in 1995 and the first combination tablet, lamivudine and zidovudine (Combivir), was approved in 1997. Fast forward to 2012 and the FDA approved the first pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for people at high-risk for contracting the disease sexually.

It’s, hopefully, just a matter of time before researchers find a vaccine and cure for the virus – hopefully less than another 25 years.

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