Column: AIDS origin offers lesson for future

A lingering sore throat brought him into the hospital. That raw, burning feeling would not go away. It was April 1983 and Dirk Diefenbach found out he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Diefenbach died at 5:18 a.m., Sunday, June 26, 1983 – just two months after he learned of the infection. He was 35 years old and the sixth person to die of AIDS in D.C.

The disease now known as AIDS was first reported to the Centers for Disease Control in June 1981. Its true nature was not known until almost two years later. President Ronald Reagan did not publicly utter the word AIDS until 1987. And the first effective treatment for the disease, the anti-retroviral drug AZT, did not begin to grant a reprieve for AIDS patients until the early 1990s. AIDS is a disease that seemingly came from nowhere. It first appeared in gay men and was largely ignored by mainstream society. Not until celebrities and children receiving blood transfusions succumbed to the disease did the fight against AIDS become an urgent priority.

This is the history of AIDS as we knew it – until recently. But AIDS has been around much longer than many people know, and according to Tuesday’s New York Times, researchers believe they now know exactly when, where and how the disease first appeared.

The story begins with a chimpanzee that was healthy until she died a decade ago while giving birth. Her organs were frozen and stored in a lab for research. And what scientists found was startling: the chimpanzee was infected with a virus that was nearly identical to HIV-I, the strain of the virus that causes AIDS in humans.

HIV-like viruses have been found in many African animals, but what makes this sample important is the presence of a distinctive gene called “vpu” that so far has only been found in the human form of the virus. Another sample of blood taken from a baby chimpanzee unrelated to the first contains a small fragment of HIV virus whose genetic sequence exactly matches the virus found in the chimpanzee mother, further showing the virus began in African primates.

With this piece of the puzzle added to others, scientists think they have solved the mystery of the origin of HIV and AIDS. Through countless hours of interviews and research, scientists traced the human origins of the worldwide epidemic back to the west-central region of Africa, the same place where the first sample of HIV-infected blood was drawn in 1959. Chimpanzees inhabit the same region, providing an overlap that allowed the virus to jump from apes to humans.

Plus, people in west-central Africa eat chimpanzees. Reason points to someone handling the meat and blood of an infected chimpanzee, contracting the virus and beginning a global pandemic that to date has infected 36.1 million people, 21.8 million of whom – 60 percent – have died from the disease.

With answers to the where and how of the origin of HIV and AIDS, researchers sought to find out when the disease first appeared. HIV mutates at a roughly constant rate. The more diverse a population of organisms, the longer that organism has been in a given location. West-central Africa has the most diverse set of HIV viruses. By studying the variations in those viruses, scientists could estimate how long HIV has been around. The date they came up with: 1931 give or take 15 years. That means it took about 50 years for humans to notice a killer in our midst.

One theory of the early spread of the disease is frightening. Tracing an exponential curve of slow growth starting around 1930 shows large numbers of infections starting to appear in the 1980s. This theory depends on nothing special to get the pandemic going. All that was necessary was an infection that did not immediately die out. No urbanization, mass transportation, lifestyle changes, deforestation or any other outside factor was necessary to unleash HIV. Since the virus has an incubation period that can be a decade or more, it can lay dormant for years before spreading. This means the next great pandemic could already be under way.

The story of the origin of AIDS should have a profound impact on how humanity views itself. For years AIDS was seen as a “gay disease,” one that “other people” contracted. This research shows that AIDS is not a class-based ailment, nor is any disease. Disease is a human problem. Divisions into nations, races, classes or other arbitrary groups are irrelevant to a virus.

The story of AIDS is one of profound loss. Millions have succumbed to its ravages in the last 20 years. As a result of events in Africa 70 years ago, people are still dying today. Over 770,000 people have been infected in the U.S.; more than 448,000 have died.

Death on the scale of the AIDS epidemic should put other world events in perspective. All the worries that appear on the evening news pale in comparison to the effects of AIDS. Yet we pay the disease so little attention and do so little to stop it.

The solutions to the AIDS problem are complex and demand significantly more resources. Sex education and family planning are matters of life and death. They require funding and should not be impeded by squeamish politicians and religious demagogues. Economic aid to Africa should be increased to help that continent deal with the potential loss of an entire generation to AIDS. A vaccine that can ward off HIV must become a global priority, as must distribution of drugs to treat the disease.

Ultimately the responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease lies with each of us. Avoiding those behaviors that put people at risk for the disease will prevent new infections. Using condoms, getting tested and behaving responsibly will go further to defeat AIDS than all the money and medications available to fight the disease.

The history of AIDS shows that humanity may not be able to predict the coming plague, but it can defeat the current one.

-The writer, a senior majoring in history, is Hatchet opinions editor.

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