The Origin of the AIDS Virus

From time to time, new diseases are discovered. In the past 20 or so years we have seen new diseases like hantavirus, ebola virus, Legionnaires' disease, lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and toxic shock syndrome. Among these new diseases, AIDS has become the most notorious.

In 1980 and 1981, doctors in the United States discovered that young gay men and IV-drug users, were mysteriously getting diseases most often seen when the immune system is damaged. As the months progressed, more and more people in these groups began to die from diseases associated with a damaged immune system. This trend was also beginning to be seen in Western Europe. As the numbers began to dramatically increase, it became clear that a new disease was upon us. AIDS was identified as a new disease in 1981. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was co-discovered several years later by Luc Montagnier and Robert Gallo.

AIDS is caused by HIV. HIV is believed to have originated in Africa sometime between the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The earliest known case was in a man from the Belgian Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1959 (his blood -- stored since 1959 -- was recently tested for HIV).

HIV is believed to have evolved from the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) found in monkeys. The hypothesis that HIV evolved from SIV is based on the many similarities between these two viruses, especially at the genetic level. The two viruses are genetically very similar and are transmitted the same way. However HIV only causes AIDS in humans, and SIV only causes AIDS in monkeys. The SIV virus, like HIV, is found in blood. From what we can tell, HIV entered man via monkey blood. This could have been possible by either drinking the blood of monkeys, eating raw monkeys or perhaps another direct exposure of monkey blood into humans.

Once HIV entered humans, over time it spread person-to-person primarily through heterosexual contact. In fact, even today, most of the worlds HIV/AIDS cases are spread by heterosexual contact, not by homosexual contact or by needle sharing.

Throughout the centuries, when a new disease spread in one community, it took many months, years or even decades to spread around the world. With the use of airplanes in the 20th century, new diseases can spread around the world faster than ever before. A person can now fly from the United States to Africa in about one day. Before airplanes were invented, it would have taken months or years to make this same journey. As people fly around the world in a matter of hours, they can bring new diseases with them.

In fact, some of the early AIDS cases in the United States were linked to a male flight attendant who flew all around the world (including Africa). This man had literally thousands of sexual partners. As he flew around the world, he spread HIV when he had sex with his numerous sexual partners. At that time it still took years for HIV to spread from Africa to the United States, since there were very few people traveling then between Africa and North America.

There is absolutely no evidence that HIV was man-made. This is especially true when you look at our level of technology back in the 1940s and 1950s. In those years, we did not have the technical tools it would have taken to "invent" a virus. Even today, we do not have the technology to invent a new virus. To a limited extent, we can now alter viruses, as well as look at them under a microscope, and study their genetic make-up.

However, these capabilities were not in existence in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, the genetic make-up of this virus is so complex, that even today, we do not have a total understanding of how the virus works at the genetic level. There was talk that the virus was spread in a polio vaccine years ago, however this theory was later disproven.

For a better understanding of the history of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, read the book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, written by Randy Shilts.

As humans encroach upon the rain forests and jungles of the world, it would not be surprising if we become exposed to still other new diseases. Diseases are a part of nature. However, we must do our best to prevent spread of new diseases, and to educate people about prevention of the diseases that are already around us.

Do you want more information on AIDS, STDs or safer sex? Contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control AIDS hotline, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-CDC-INFO. Or visit The Body's Safe Sex and Prevention Forum.

Until next time . . . Work hard, play hard, play safe, stay sober!