October 11, 2010
Despite the persistent myth that HIV was a man-made disease, unleashed upon the unsuspecting, disenfranchised of our society (read gays and blacks), now comes more evidence that it may have been present in monkeys and apes for millennia. New research, published in Science magazine last month, report the presence of the ancestor of the simian HIV virus in Africa possibly dating back as far as 78,000 years. This fascinating research, that studied monkey species on a volcanic island off of the coast of West Africa, who developed in isolation, found that four of the six species had been infected with HIV.
Although this study may help to answer certain questions, such as why HIV infects most simian species, but doesn't kill them, it fails to answer the main one: how did a relatively benign monkey virus become one of the greatest health crises in the history of mankind. Many still believe that the human HIV epidemic was caused by, purposely or inadvertently, human meddling.
Evidence of the great age of HIV does point to the likelihood that, over centuries, the virus killed off weaker monkeys leaving behind those who became resistant to it. However, does that mean that it will take thousands of years before we are able to adapt naturally to HIV? Can we survive that long with rising rates, declining government support and the aggressive mutation of the virus?
Our obvious advantage is, of course, our technological superiority. We now have over 30 medications to treat HIV and many believe that a cure is still possible. However, by following the path of HIV and other diseases, it hopefully reminds us of our fragility and vulnerability as we continue, sometimes in the interest of capitalism and expansion, to invade more exotic and isolated lands and interact with previously unknown species.