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What If HIV Had Never Happened?

By Dave R.

August 14, 2013

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So for the fun of it, let's take HIV out of the picture; imagine it never happened, where would we stand both medically and socially?

The medical world without HIV would be a much simpler place. Sexual diseases are actually quite straight-forward and limited in number. They're either bacterial, viral, or fungal and haven't seemingly changed that much over the centuries; they've just been identified much better in the last hundred years. It's not as if STDs have mutated hundreds of times and caused worldwide sexual plagues along the way. Syphilis 500 years ago is still the syphilis we know today; it's just that we can cure it now so it's not nearly as lethal as it used to be.

What is worrying is the emerging resistance to known antibiotics.

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Bacterial STDs should be able to be defeated by antibiotics but the farming and agricultural industries across the world have fed the demand for cheap meats and dairy products by dosing their animals with constant antibiotics to keep them disease-free. This means that antibiotics are being taken by humans indirectly and resistance builds up. It's inevitable and logical but the unstoppable force that is consumerism means that while the demand for cheap meat rises, so does the use of antibiotics in animal foods. The development of new antibiotics can't keep up with the growing resistance to the current ones. Consequently, we're seeing pockets of resistant forms of gonorrhoea and syphilis springing up across the world. If they can't be cured, what happens then?

Similarly, hepatitis C is a growing problem amongst sexually active, LGBT people. Also a virus, there's no vaccine and its treatment can be brutal for the patient to say the least. It attacks the liver and can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and eventually liver failure.

The implications of HPV and the herpes viruses are just beginning to be understood as more and more links are being found to other conditions, especially a growing number of cancers (throat and anal being especially relevant). HPV vaccines exist (Cervarix and Gardasil) but seem only to be effective if given to young people, preferably before their first sexual contact.

With herpes, the virus remains in the body for life; there's no vaccine and it can recur with alarming regularity and is above all, extremely infectious. It travels through the body via the nervous system (hence awful conditions like Shingles) but perhaps more alarmingly, scientists are beginning to see links with other STDs and health problems. The herpes virus may act as a piggy-back conduit for other viral conditions. Certainly many people on HIV immunosuppressants are well aware that herpes reappears much more easily if the immune system is compromised either by HIV or the medication. The herpes virus that attacks the brain (herpes viral meningitis) is especially worrying and recent, contagious outbreaks in gay circles may yet prove to be a worldwide and potentially fatal problem.

So if HIV had never existed, there's absolutely no guarantee that nothing else would have taken its place. We need to be as alert for sexually transmitted viruses, as those surrounding various sorts of Flu that have scared us silly recently (Spanish flu (killed 19 million people just after the 1st World War), Mexican flu, Bird flu and SARS to name but three). Science is continually trying to stay on top of viral developments but human history has shown again and again that viruses are extremely difficult to predict or control.

Similarly, we need to be much more aware that our antibiotic resources are limited. Finding new ones takes decades and the bio-industry's insistence on force feeding its animal stock with "preventative" antibiotics is a sure fire route to resistance. If that happens and bacterial STDs become incurable, it will start a chain reaction that would be potentially as devastating as HIV has been.

What about the social effects on a world without HIV?

It's safe to assume that the heterosexual world would be facing different challenges if the millions of people lost to AIDS were still here. Humanity is used to plagues decimating populations and recovering but the 20th Century has seen the fastest growth of technological and scientific development since the beginning of time. Where would Africa be now for instance, if AIDS hadn't existed? Would it be a continent even more prone to poverty and starvation thanks to a burgeoning population, or would it have flourished with the input of healthy generations that have been otherwise lost?

You could certainly argue that lost LGBT generations would have had a significant influence on the world today. There would be a much larger "senior" LGBT presence, with all its skills, creativity and experience to make a significant impact on society. This brings us back to one of the original questions of this piece: If the Pre-HIV party had continued, what would the impact on society be now?

In 2013, we have a snowballing, LGBT social integration taking place. Same-sex marriage and adoption; same-sex presences everywhere in TV, film and entertainment; majorities of nations' populations all over the world approving LGBT acceptance and so on. It's patchy and has setbacks but there's no denying its impetus. Would all that have been possible if the sexual revolution had been allowed to run its course and hadn't been stopped in its tracks by HIV? Or would it all have happened much sooner? Personally, I have a feeling that the general population was already feeling uncomfortable about the explosion in sexual freedoms in the late 70s and while some took the opportunity to see AIDS as a natural punishment for excess, many more changed their opinion of LGBT people as they saw the extent of the suffering. Yes HIV was/is frightening and yes people's noses were rubbed in the fact that it was sexually transmitted and had to visualise things they'd never imagined but tragedy is tragedy and a sea-swell of sympathy may have helped LGBT rights to get where they are today.

If the hedonism hadn't been "reined in", you have to wonder what the eventual consequences might have been. Maybe nowadays, we would be far less accepted by society as a whole. Historically, all societies that have given themselves over to sexual freedom and excess have collapsed eventually (look at the ancient Romans) mainly because the majority of the population are not actually part of the fun...living and surviving gets in the way.

Maybe LGBT societies themselves would have turned against the excesses going on around them and demanded moderation and more standard relationships, including marriage. There's only so much sexual fun you can have before it gets boring, though HIV made sure we never found out. That said, there are signs that hedonism is taking root yet again amongst both heterosexual and LGBT youth. Modern society is based on the technological pleasure principle: get as much money as you can, buy as many gadgets as you can and party like it's 2099!

Finally, you have to wonder if HIV is actually only a blip on the human timeline. Societies tend to develop in ever-repeating circles and freedoms are like snakes and ladders; they blossom and decline. That's the way it's been throughout history. Just because the 21st century is more technologically advanced than any other before doesn't mean that people will intrinsically change their basic behaviors. HIV is a plague that has changed human history within the space of 30 years. Whether it has led to social improvements or decline for the groups it has affected, is maybe less important than the fact that it is only 30 years old and after 50 years may be gone completely. Will it even be remembered in the history books of the 30th century? Now that's a worrying thought!


More Information and Resources

Venereal Disease

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDS)

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HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck


Dave R.

Dave R.

English but living since 1986 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. HIV+ since 2004 and a neuropathy patient since 2007. I've seen quite a bit, done quite a bit and bought quite a few t-shirts if you know what I mean; but all that baggage makes me what I am today: a better person I believe, despite it all.

Arriving on TheBody.com, originally, was the end result of getting neuropathy as a side effect of the medication, or the virus, or both. I found it such a vague disease and discovered very little information that wasn't commercially tinged, or scientifically impenetrable, so I decided to create a daily Blog and a website where practical information, hints, tips and experiences for patients could be gathered together in one place.

However, I was also given the chance to write about other aspects of living with HIV and have now contributed more articles about those than about neuropathy. That said, neuropathy remains my 'core subject' although one which unfortunately dominates both my life and that of many other HIV-positive people.

I'm not a doctor or qualified medical expert, just someone with neuropathy and HIV who has spent the last few years researching the illness and trying to create information sources for people who want to know more.

I also have my own personal website and write for PositiveLite.com.


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