There are few acronyms that could spell out a more harrowing disease than that of HIV/AIDS. For years the virus has remained a thorn in researchers and scientists’ sides due to its extremely viable genetic components and the fact that it can remain inside the human body sometimes as long as ten years before any symptoms are presented. Making many of those who are infected, perfect carriers for increasing its deadly spread.
Questions such as ‘where’ and ‘how’ in regards to how the virus initially infiltrated our population still plagues the scientific and medical community today. Once stigmatized as a gay man’s and drug-abuser’s disease, it has since crossed into mainstream populations but still carries a dubious scent of deep-seeded prejudices and fears, where a diagnosis is often synonymous with death.
However, the future may not be so dire.
Let’s look at the origins of the HIV virus, its devastating path and where it has led modern medicine in its efforts for treatment:
- HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) has been identified as a ‘lentivirus’ or ‘slow acting’ which is seen due to its longevity inside the human body without displaying symptoms. These types of viruses are also seen with cats, sheep, horses and cattle, however with the human strain, its genetic material most closely resembles the simian variety (or SIV – Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) found in West Africa’s monkey and chimpanzee populations. SIV is nothing new to monkeys, as a matter of fact, it has been living within the wild monkey populations of west-central Africa for more than 32,000 years. But since the virus’s emergence onto the global theater, namely within the human population, the scientific community has been tirelessly studying its unique genomes and DNA.As a result, they have identified two unique types of HIV. HIV-1 tends to be the more virulent of the two strains, and within Africa’s monkey population has been found in a pack of wild chimpanzees, it is also known as SIVcpz. HIV-2 has been traced to the Sooty Mangabey (White Collared Monkey) also found in west-central Africa, and it is believed that between the two simians, a third virus emerged, which not only affected monkeys but was now also capable of crossing into humans through bodily contact and/or consuming infected monkey meat.
- Perfect Pandemic Storm: At some point, scientists are hesitant to say exactly how the initial contagion began its deadly course, but they do know that virus jumped species, also known as zoonosis, and when it found a viable host in the human body, it settled in quickly and productively. Part of the virus’ success is due to its prowess, to gain entrance it first destroys the CD4+ (or “Helper”) T-Cells that are on constant alert to keep our bodies fighting diseases, leaving the host vulnerable for a variety of infections and diseases. Secondly, is its very design, as its exterior is difficult to expose the underlying DNA for treatments to penetrate.Another factor is its longevity, where it can reside within a host for years without presenting symptoms increasing chances of further exposures. Regardless, we still can’t pinpoint the exact how, but we are getting closer to the when. Within recent years, the virus has been found in tissue samples of a Bantu male and in a lymph node of an African woman dating back to 1959 which proves that the virus has actually been around much longer than previously thought. But it wouldn’t receive national and global attention until the early 1980’s when members of the gay male population in Los Angeles began exhibiting symptoms of an unknown disease. Throw in infection exposures gained by intravenous drug users, blood donation recipients, ignorance and careless sexual practices and the results were a recipe of global proportions.
- Future: Though the prognosis is still rather grim, the World Health Organization (WHO) cites a 2004 study that the AIDS/HIV virus claimed somewhere between 2.8 – 3.5 million lives, there are some brighter signs on the horizon. With the advent of multiple treatment therapies, people in the earlier stages of HIV are living much longer and healthier lives. Some even showing zero levels in their blood work. However, even with this good news, general consensus in the medical community states that the HIV/AIDS virus still remains incurable at this point. That is why when recent news was released in regards to the so-called ‘Berlin Patient’ cure; it shook the AIDS community to its core.Timothy Ray Brown, who has been living with the HIV virus for the last two decades, underwent two bone marrow transplants during the course of treating leukemia, receiving donated marrow that had a mutation on the CCR5 gene, which also is a gateway for allowing the virus into the body. When this ‘doorway’ was no longer allowing the virus through, Mr. Brown became HIV-free. Clinical studies and further research and treatment options are constantly being reviewed and examined, but this breakthrough could literally transform how we treat this virus and perhaps others, for the future.
It’s true; the spread of AIDS/HIV has had dire ramifications upon the human population. Yet, today there is a more unified voice than from previous decades, a battle cry of good health on a global level. Though the fight continues, we have not only learned much about this persistent enemy along the way, we have also discovered how the human immunity system works in general. When we can proactively destroy these dangerous viruses before they begin their treacherous trail, we can not only further prevent future cases, but begin the process of eliminating countless diseases on every level.
Kathryn Norcutt has been an active member of the health care community for over 20 years. During her time as a nurse, she has helped people from all walks of life and ages. Now, Kathryn leads a much less hectic life and devotes most of her free time to writing for RNnetwork, a site specializing in travel nursing.