Friday, January 23, 2015

From the Archives: HIV/AIDS Updates--The Missing Link

From the Archives: HIV/AIDS Updates - The Missing Link

Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

AIDS turned twenty-eight this year! Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it all started with one genetic transformation from a monkey virus to a human one, with (possibly) a hunter in the jungles of Central Africa sometime in the late 1930s. That one mutation led to the first HIV infection, which medical professionals officially recorded in 1959. The infected hunter, the world’s AIDS patient zero, left his village for the large cities of Africa and the opportunities they provided. The crowds and busy city nightlife attracted both the hunter and his virus in different ways. Soon, HIV started to spread from person to person, taking over communities, cities, countries and continents, becoming what we know today as the global AIDS pandemic.

Fence seen through purple baloon
Missing Link. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

While most HIV/AIDS experts agree today that HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, has mutated from SIV, or Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, scientists have also been interested to find out why SIV doesn’t destroy its hosts, while HIV has decimated those it infected?

This year AIDS experts may be closer to an answer thanks to a nine-year research study on chimpanzees at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. The study results show that chimps are the only other primates, besides humans, that are not immune to the immunodeficiency virus. The virus in question is a new strain of SIV, one that is as deadly to chimpanzees as HIV is to humans.

The discovery is significant because it connects the strain of non-deadly SIV in monkeys and apes to the deadly strains of HIV that have killed tens of millions of people. Researchers call it “the missing link” in the history of the AIDS pandemic.

There are a few similarities between the deadly strain of SIV and HIV: chimps and humans have contracted the respected viruses in similar ways—by eating contaminated monkey meat; both species have spread the viruses in similar ways—through sexual encounters. Experts believe that the other primates have remained healthy despite contracting SIV because, in time, they have adapted to the virus. Chimpanzees started getting infected with SIV only recently; therefore, they did not have enough time to adapt to the virus.

There is the school of thought suggesting that, in time, HIV itself becomes weaker. Past years studies have shown that the HIV of the early eighties was more damaging than the HIV of today. Another aspect that needs to be considered is the HIV/AIDS treatment (HAART medications) available today, treatment that was almost non-existent in the early days of the pandemic.

Experts hope that studying the new strain of SIV will help them learn more about HIV. While this brings new hope to those in the continuous fight against the AIDS pandemic, the newly discovered strain of SIV represents an immediate death sentence for the chimps that are already placed on the list of endangered species because of diseases, hunting and loss of habitat. Unlike humans, chimpanzees don’t have the necessary (anti-SIV) medications to keep them alive. For them, the clock is ticking… 

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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