AIDS, a now widespread and almost invariably deadly disease (acronym for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), is caused by the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) virus. The HIV virus causes its damage to the body by deceiving Helper T white blood cells into taking the virus in through its cell membrane and then changing the virus’ RNA to DNA using an enzyme called Reverse Transcriptase. The cell then uses this DNA to create numerous copies of the HIV virus, not aware of what it is doing. The cell continues making copies of the virus until it is filled and bursts sending out a huge number of new HIV viruses into the bloodstream to infect the rest of the body.

Immediately after contracting the HIV virus, a general sickness sets in, the symptoms are similar to those of influenza, such as stiffness, joint pains, fever, nausea, etc. these symptoms usually disappear completely after 2 to 3 weeks following their appearance and the contraction of the disease, often leading the victim to believe he/she is healthy. Although the initial symptoms disappear, the HIV virus has not yet begun to do its real damage to the immune system. The virus incubates for up to 10 years, multiplying and weakening the immune system. After its decade of apparent dormancy, HIV advances to AIDS, and begins to infect and rupture the immune system’s Helper T white blood cells, weakening the body’s ability to fight off infections and leaving it vulnerable to opportunistic infections (infections that would normally be fought off easily). HIV itself is not usually the fatal disease, but causes other diseases to set in, killing the victim.

AIDS and HIV are relatively new diseases, appearing first in the early 1980’s. The virus originated in Los Angeles, California. Most HIV victims at the time were homosexual men, though merely a coincidence, homosexuals were in no way more susceptible, and intravenous drug users who used old or dirty needles. Sharing the needles transferred blood carrying HIV from person to person. HIV is now pandemic, infecting millions of people of all sexualities and non drug users as well as drug abusers throughout the world. Though it was first recognized in California, the majority of HIV victims are in developing countries, many in Africa.

Origins of HIV/AIDS

It is widely believed that HIV entered the human population as a result zoonosis, the process where a disease jumps the species barrier. In this case SIV, the monkey form of HIV is believed to have jumped the species barrier. The stronger strain of HIV, HIV-1, is almost identical to SIVcpz. SIVcpz is found in a species of chimpanzees known as Pan troglodytes troglodytes which can be found Central-Western Africa. Some researchers claim that this species of chimpanzee was responsible for HIV-1 and at some point SIVcpz jumped the species barrier. However, this theory is often questioned as SIVcpz is a rarer strand that does not often infect chimpanzees.

The other main theory of how SIV jumped the species barrier was published in 2003 by Professor Paul Sharp of Nottingham University and Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama. Their research idicated that a red-capped mangabey and a greater spot nosed monkey, both infected with their forms of SIV, had sex and the two strands of the virus combined to create a 3rd type of hybrid virus that was capable of infecting humans within them both. Chimpanzees became infected with this disease when they hunted and killed the smaller monkeys. When humans killed the chimpanzees and ate them, they became infected with the virus.

First Reported Cases

1959: A plasma sample taken from a man in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
1969: A tissue sample from a recently deceased American teenager in St. Louis.
1976: Tissue samples from a deceased Norwegian sailor.

However, it was not until 1989 that HIV erupted into an epidemic.

Why did it spread?

International Travel: The problem presented by international travel is highlighted in the case study of Patient Zero, or Gaeten Dugas - a flight attendant. Early cases of AIDS have been shown to have direct and indirect links to Gaeten Dugas. It also highlights how the disease could have travelled through a single agent.

Blood Transfusions: In many countries, such as the U.S., blood transfusions were/are paid for. Furthermore, some transfusions require blood from various sources to be pooled together, thus contaminating a larger amount of blood. This blood is also sent worldwide.

Drug Use: HIV can be transmitted through syringes. After the Vietnam War and various Middle East Conflicts, drug use boomed in the 70s and it was possible to borrow, lend or rent equipment.

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