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Origin of AIDS Discovered

Winter, 1999

Making the announcement that received the most media coverage of any event at the 6th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), scientists at the University of Alabama reported that they believe they've solved the 20-year-old mystery of the origins of AIDS. An international team of scientists has traced the roots of the largest plague the world has ever seen, one that now afflicts over 30 million people worldwide, back to a subspecies of chimpanzee in Africa.

It has been widely believed that the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which is similar to HIV in monkeys, came from chimpanzees. Now, this discovery has finally provided proof that HIV-1 did come from a chimpanzee called the Pan troglodytes.

Scientists have expressed hope that this discovery will eventually lead to a better understanding of AIDS and possibly to better therapies and a vaccine. "The chimpanzee, which has served as the source of HIV-1, also quite possibly holds the clues to its successful control" says the head of the team, Dr. Beatrice Hahn. Studies will examine just how transmission of SIV occurs, and will look at how the chimpanzee's immune system responds to SIV. This species of chimpanzee and humans are 98 percent genetically similar, but while the chimpanzees are not affected by the virus, it remains deadly to humans.

The excitement of the researchers and the hope that this discovery will lead to breakthroughs in medical treatment, however, is greatly dampened by other news-that these monkeys are being slaughtered "to the brink of extinction." Their natural habitat in central and west Africa is being systematically destroyed by logging roads being built into what were once remote forests.

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And the monkeys themselves are being hunted and slaughtered for food for what is known as the "bush meat" trade. This practice may be putting people at risk for cross-species transmission of both known and unknown viruses. Scientist fear that SIV and other viruses possibly even more deadly than AIDS could be spreading undetected in the population as people expose themselves to previously untouched areas and animals.

As is the case with the disease of AIDS itself, in many areas new answers seem always to bring many new questions. This discovery is no exception. A great deal of research will be needed before that answers surface that will impact people living with AIDS today.





  
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This article was provided by Seattle Treatment Education Project. It is a part of the publication STEP Perspective.
 

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