30th Anniversary of 1st HIV/AIDS Cases
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.