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The Last Word

Secrets and Puzzles of HIV/AIDS

February 2001

A recent issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to the issue of secrets and puzzles -- famous events and unsolved puzzles that intrigue people all the more in this age of quick communication and tell-all confessional books. In keeping with Body Positive's focus on the history of HIV/AIDS during this 20th year of the epidemic, we present a few of the lingering secrets and puzzles surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Could There Have Been Many HIV Epidemics in the Past that We Just Don't Know About?

When AIDS first appeared in the early 1980s, it seemed that HIV was a new virus. But review of medical records has indicated that individual AIDS cases can be identified as early as the 1950s; for instance, there were suspicious outbreaks of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Europe after World War II. More recently, Belgian researchers have conducted virological analyses that trace a predecessor to HIV in the 17th century. And most people who have been discovered to be genetically resistant to HIV infection are of Northern European ethnicity -- could they be the descendants of people who had survived earlier epidemics?

How Did the Virus First Make Its Way into the Human Population?

It's been clearly established for a while that HIV -- the Human Immunodeficiency Virus -- is closely related to SIV -- the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus -- found among apes in Central Africa, where apes were sometimes used for food. The "cut hunter" theory hypothesizes that one or more hunters may have sliced open a hand while butchering an ape, allowing blood to mix and the virus to jump species from simian to human. Others think the transfer might have occurred when people ate the brains of slaughtered apes, since the nervous system is known to contain large quantities of virus.

Could HIV Be Human-Made?

A controversial theory advanced last year suggested that the epidemic was inadvertently started when SIV-infected polio vaccine was distributed in Africa in the late 1950s, but more recent evidence has cast that hypothesis into doubt. There are also some who are convinced that the U.S. government engineered HIV and then deliberately spread it among disfavored groups, such as gay men, injecting drug users, and African Americans. This theory was especially popular after a newspaper report claimed that the CIA deliberately introduced crack cocaine into poor black neighborhoods, launching a devastating crack epidemic. But the CIA-crack connection fell apart under closer examination, and no real evidence has surfaced to suggest that HIV is anything other than a naturally occurring virus.


How Did HIV Make Its Way to the Western Hemisphere from Africa?

Early in the epidemic, Haitians seemed to be disproportionately likely to have AIDS. Then it was noted that a number of Haitians had worked in Zaire, a country in Central Africa. So some people made the leap and assumed that this was the link between Africa and the Caribbean. However, subsequent analysis made clear that Haitians were not ever really that much more likely to have HIV. The next popular concept was that there was a "Patient Zero" -- a gay, HIV-positive French-Canadian flight attendant -- who had sex with men in several major cities. But it seems highly unlikely that any one person would be able to have started such a chain of infection, and, besides, he had to have acquired it from somewhere. Another common theory suggested that HIV arrived in New York City in 1976, when thousands of sailors from around the world gathered in New York Harbor for the country's bicentennial celebration. But retrospective tests of frozen blood serum have indicated that many people were already HIV-infected by that time. So the puzzle persists.

Back to the February 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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