AIDS - History

June, 2006 marked the 25th anniversary of the “discovery” of AIDS. Two different researchers, working on opposite sides of the country had treated clusters of young, previously healthy men who were dying of a new syndrome. They had various diseases, but they all had one thing in common: none of those diseases were generally seen in people with healthy immune systems.

Sadly, all of those patients died. Over the past twenty-five years, somewhere around the world, close to 20 million more have also died of AIDS. Almost 40 million more people are currently living with HIV, according to the World Health Organization. Although we have better treatments now, HIV infection and AIDS remain incurable. These are sobering statistics.

What is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus? It is a complicated piece of genetic material that is able to “set up house” in many different kinds of cells of the human body and reproduce itself in staggering numbers. The general consensus is that HIV mutated from a similar virus that caused infections in monkeys. These monkeys were hunted for food in Central and Western Africa. Monkeys fight back when they are hunted: many hunters became infected with their virus. This virus mutated or changed into what we now call HIV.

HIV is transmitted in a limited number of ways. Sexual intercourse is the most common method of transmission, followed by direct blood exposure. Women can pass HIV to their unborn children – although the risk of this kind of transmission is greatly reduced by treating pregnant women. Intravenous drug users share blood contaminated needles and related “works”, leading to the high rate of infection in this population.

We also now know that HIV had been infecting humans for quite a while before we noticed it. Some tribes in Africa referred to it as “the slim disease” because so many of those infected wasted away from massive weight loss. These countries didn’t have the laboratories or the scientists they needed in the 1950’s to identify and describe this new virus, but they knew its symptoms and deadly effects.

Today, there are 22 licensed drugs used to treat HIV in the United States. Developing countries have many fewer assets, although efforts are under way to provide better care world-wide. There are tests available to detect HIV, so that treatment can be timely. Researchers are also working hard to develop a vaccine against HIV to prevent infection in the first place, but that goal is likely to be achieved only many years from now.

The bottom line is that – in spite of all the progress we have made over the past 25 years- HIV infection and AIDS will remain among the leading causes of death world wide for some time to come.

Yet, AIDS can be prevented. Use of condoms during sexual intercourse; avoiding exposure to blood contaminated needles, and aggressive treatment of pregnant women known to be infected with HIV can lower the huge toll that HIV takes. Are you willing to take preventative action in your own life and encourage others to do likewise? Your life may depend on it!

Links to HIV Information