In the history of public health, HIV/AIDS is unique; it has widespread and long-lasting demographic, social, economic and political impacts. The global response has been unprecedented. AIDS exceptionalism--the idea that the disease requires a response above and beyond "normal" health interventions--began as a Western response to the originally terrifying and lethal nature of the virus. More recently, AIDS exceptionalism came to refer to the disease-specific global response and the resources dedicated to addressing the epidemic. There has been a backlash against this exceptionalism, with critics claiming that HIV/AIDS receives a disproportionate amount of international aid and health funding.This paper situations this debate in historical perspective. By reviewing histories of the disease, policy developments and funding patterns, it charts how the meaning of AIDS exceptionalism has shifted over three decades. It argues that while the connotation of the term has changed, the epidemic has maintained its course, and therefore some of the justifications for exceptionalism remain.