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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

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.

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 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!

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Gary (Evansville Indiana) Thu., Aug. 22, 2013 at 6:14 am UTC
What Loreen says is true, I feel really guilty about it but I'm also glad HIV happened in a way. It made me the person I am now. I had to care for my partner until he died and was in a group of friends where half were lost to HIV. That made me grow up so fast and taught me things Id never have learned otherwise. So yep, I wish it hadn't happened but it made me really appreciate what life is
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Comment by: Loreen (Las Vegas) Mon., Aug. 19, 2013 at 3:31 am UTC
I think you have made a lot of interesting points and I'm glad you wrote this, it made me wonder what I thought about HIV. It may sound terrible but I'm actually glad HIV came along because it saved my son from dying. He was into drugs and was stealing to pay for his habit. He was always angry and he wasn't the same son any more who I'd had such a loving relationship with. When he was infected with HIV and survived he became a different person and turned his life right around. I got my son back and know he can live a normal life so stupid as it sounds, if HIV hadn't happened I don't think he'd be around any more.
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Comment by: Don S. (Los Angeles) Fri., Aug. 16, 2013 at 1:11 am UTC
CONTINUED: Not one single man I knew from those days is here anymore. But I am. What did it all mean? what really happened? what changed? The only difference between then and now that I can see (besides the parts of town Gay men used to dominate) is that everyone is lots younger—because people my age are nowhere to be found, or else such a rarity one should win a prize for spotting one of us! One reads of the first manifestation of Bubonic Plague in the Western world in the mid-14th century, and how as much as ½ of the total population of Europe succumbed to a disease even more horrifying and ugly than AIDS. But then one goes on to read and notes that less than 10 years later, life was being lived by the survivors in nearly the same manner as before. The economy changed, religion changed a tiny bit, the Plague had some effect on society, but basically, life went on. And although I don’t agree with everything he said, I do agree with Dave R. when he postulates that perhaps “HIV is actually only a blip on the human timeline.” Rather like the Vietnam war (which I lived through but few of my (young) friends remember of have heard much about). Obviously it had no effect on Washington or our nation’s ubiquitous hawkishness and fondness for foreign interventions. So I kind of suppose AIDS will be like that—a major, life-altering, consuming, scarring, horrific event that will ultimately be ours alone—property of us who “lived it.” And with so much else happening amongst our species on the face of this planet, it will be a marvel if AIDS even gets a sentence in tomorrow’s high-school text-books.
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Comment by: Don S. (Los Angeles) Fri., Aug. 16, 2013 at 1:10 am UTC
Dave R.’s comments were thought provoking. I wonder sometimes what life would be like if the scores and scores of dear beloved men lost during the Pandemic were still here. Men I had the closest possible friendships with, slept with, admired, looked up to, who were my teachers, mentors, guides, who’d been my lovers, who I compared my own progress at the gym to (and vice versa), who I actually thought would continue to own and run business I frequented, men I was to grow old with. Now they’ve all vanished. So often it seems my entire generation vanished except me and the (very few) survivors I only read about but don’t know and haven’t run into. I caught the virus in 1978 and of course had no inkling that whatever the really bad malady it took weeks to recover from (“flu” doesn’t hit in the Summer?) would still be dominating my life in 2013! One minute I was 24, with lots of friends and a future to look forward to, the next minute I was (am) 60, still waiting to “grow up.” Years upon years of attending memorial services for 3-5 loved ones every weekend, of becoming involved in volunteer work that demanded more emotional stability (or detachment?) than I was yet equipped to handle, years of being in physical proximity (holding a hand, having my head on a chest, holding a head in my lap) with a loved one as he passed. But meanwhile, with no reliable prospect of living another week, I attended orgies regularly, or threw them in my home (my upstairs master bedroom held 2 slings, a 12’x7’ chunk of exercise equipment, my big bed and three mattresses on the floor—in addition to video cams on tripods, a well-lit walk-in closet for those who needed to cut lines, or whatever—plus 25 invited guests for two nights) like there was no tomorrow.
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Comment by: Mary Scriver (Valier, Montana) Thu., Aug. 15, 2013 at 9:18 am UTC
I liked your 'what-if' article.
I'm just an old lady who has a lot of gay friends because I was in theatre classes in the long ago.
Here's something I haven't heard mentioned: those men who were so free with their bodies, running through the streets nude and on fire with eroticism, became tender nurses -- at least a lot of them did. They knew skin and mess and suffering and didn't shrink from it. Something like combat soldiers. They moved from eroticism to intimacy -- those who were tough enough -- and that's more valuable than all the "MadMen" on the planet.
I'm celibate, solitary, and preoccupied with other things, but I dearly love those tender men.
Prairie Mary
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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, 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

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