We are unlikely to ever know all the details of the birth of the AIDS epidemic. But a series of recent genetic discoveries have shed new light on it, starting with the moment when a connection from chimp to human changed the course of history.
We now know where the epidemic began: a small patch of dense forest in southeastern Cameroon. We know when: within a couple of decades on either side of 1900. We have a good idea of how: A hunter caught an infected chimpanzee for food, allowing the virus to pass from the chimp’s blood into the hunter’s body, probably through a cut during butchering.
As to the why, here is where the story gets even more fascinating, and terrible. We typically think of diseases in terms of how they threaten us personally. But they have their own stories. Diseases are born. They grow. They falter, and sometimes they die. In every case these changes happen for reasons.
For decades nobody knew the reasons behind the birth of the AIDS epidemic. But it is now clear that the epidemic’s birth and crucial early growth happened during Africa’s colonial era, amid massive intrusion of new people and technology into a land where ancient ways still prevailed. European powers engaged in a feverish race for wealth and glory blazed routes up muddy rivers and into dense forests that had been traveled only sporadically by humans before.
The most disruptive of these intruders were thousands of African porters. Forced into service by European colonial powers, they cut paths through the exact area that researchers have now identified as the birthplace of the AIDS epidemic. It was here, in a single moment of transmission from chimp to human, that a strain of virus called HIV-1 group M first appeared.
Posts tagged epidemic.
UN reports ‘extraordinary progress’ in global fight against AIDS
The international community has made extraordinary progress in the past decade in the fight against AIDS, but a funding crisis is putting those gains at risk, the United Nations health agencies said.
A World Health Organization-led report said the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS and now infects about 34 million people around the world has proven a “formidable challenge” for scientists and public health experts.
“But the tide is turning,” it added. “The tools to achieve an AIDS-free generation are in our hands.”
More people than ever are living with the AIDS virus but this is largely due to better access to drugs that keepHIV patients alive and well for many years, the United Nations AIDS program (UNAIDS) said on Monday.
In its annual report on the pandemic, UNAIDS said the number of people dying of the disease fell to 1.8 million in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the mid-2000s.
UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe said the past 12 months had been a “game-changing year” in the global AIDS fight.
About 2.5 million deaths have been averted in poor and middle-income countries since 1995 due to AIDS drugs being introduced and access to them improving, according to UNAIDS.
Much of that success has come in the past two years as the numbers of people getting treatment has increased rapidly.
“We’ve never had a year when there has been so much science, so much leadership and such results in one year,” Sidibe said in a telephone interview from UNAIDS in Geneva.
The Changing Face of AIDS – the successes and failures of the fight against AIDS in the past 30 years, in an infographic
Last week two studies demonstrated that a daily antiviral pill protects sexually active men and women from getting infected. Now researchers are showing that the life expectancy of already-infected African patients getting HIV treatment almost matches that of their uninfected countrymen.
“This is the first study that has looked at how long those people can plan to live,” study author Edward Mills told Shots. “And we’ve found very, very positive results.”
Actuarial analysis (the kind life insurance companies do to gauge the remaining lifespan of someone at a given age and gender in a given society) reveals that more than 22,000 Ugandans on HIV treatment can expect to live almost as long as those who don’t carry the virus. The average life expectancy at birth in Uganda is 55 years.
This is much better than the most optimistic experts dared to hope when antiviral cocktails were first rolled out in the poorest countries less than a decade ago.
“No one really foresaw how effective these drugs would be, and how many people could be treated late in infection and still have their immune function largely restored,” says Dr. Deborah Cotton of Boston University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. “We knew it was good. It turns out to be great.”
Tomorrow, Sunday, Sunday, June 5, marks 30 years since the first cases of HIV in the UK (in the most well-known, modern outbreak in the 1980s — see below for the real history of HIV). The 30th anniversary of HIV comes just days ahead of a United Nations (UN) meeting in New York City where 26 heads of state will meet to discuss progress in tackling the epidemic. The UK, along with various other countries worldwide, have signed a UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV and AIDS which commits to having a national strategy for combating HIV which addresses stigma, discrimination, human rights, prevention, care, treatment and support. However, the UK will be attending the UN meeting in breach of international commitments and failing to meet best practice in addressing the epidemic: there is currently no national strategy on HIV in the UK. Despite many successes in tackling the epidemic, more people than ever are living with HIV in the UK and a significant proportion of the British public still do not know the basic facts around HIV transmission according to the National AIDS Trust (NAT).
Four of what were believed to be the earliest known instances of HIV infection are as follows:
- A plasma sample taken in 1959 from an adult heterosexual male living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- A lymph node sample taken in 1960 from an adult heterosexual female, also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- HIV found in tissue samples from an American teenager who died in St. Louis in 1969.
- HIV found in tissue samples from a Norwegian sailor who died around 1976.
However, a 1998 analysis of the plasma sample from 1959 suggested that HIV-1 was introduced into humans around the 1940s or the early 1950s.
Then, in January 2000, the results of a new study16 suggested that the first case of HIV-1 infection occurred around 1931 in West Africa. This estimate (which had a 15 year margin of error) was based on a complex computer model of HIV’s evolution.
Most recently, a study in 2008 dated the origin of HIV to between 1884 and 1924, much earlier than previous estimates. The researchers compared the viral sequence from 1959 (the oldest known HIV-1 specimen) to the newly discovered sequence from 1960. They found a significant genetic difference between them, demonstrating diversification of HIV-1 occurred long before the AIDS pandemic was recognized.
The authors suggest a long history of the virus in Africa and call Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in West Africa, the “epicenter of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.” They propose the early spread of HIV was concurrent with the development of colonial cities, in which crowding of people increased opportunities for HIV transmission. If accurate, these findings clearly suggest that HIV existed long before the conspiracy theories and homophobic scenarios (such as the OPV and conspiracy theories) have intimated.
Today is World AIDS Day.