Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the publishing of details of a new disease, one that the world now knows as AIDS.
The history of HIV and AIDS is scarily fascinating. Its spread across the world was rapid and catching it pretty much condemns you to a prolonged death as your body gets weaker and weaker.
I boarded at secondary school in theUKin the early 80’s and I remember some of the news reports about this new disease. One thing that I especially remember is that it seemed to be a disease that targeted homosexuals, at least that’s the impression that the news reports left me with. It was no surprise that I and my fellow school friends considered it just deserts for those who dared to live such a disgusting and unnatural lifestyle. Of course, none of us knew, or had actually met an AIDS suffer, so it was easy to be prejudiced from a distance.
For me, it wouldn’t be long for that to change. My mother worked as an Occupational Therapist at the Hospital inLusaka,Zambiaand would encounter a few AIDS patients during her years there. SO on holidays back toZambia, there were a few people that we would encounter socially who suffered the disease. I remember one lady in particular who was always a pleasure to see as she was always cheerful and bright she was a Zambian and had AIDS, I have no idea how she became infected, but that isn’t the point. She was a wonderful person, as far as I can remember, given I was a young teenager when I knew her, my mother always spoke well of her, even long after we leftZambia. I don’t know when she died, I just know that there came a time when she was no longer a part of our lives.
Enough of That, What About the Evolution?
To most people HIV and AIDS burst on to the scene in the 1980s. The disease was at first unknown and a bit of a mystery and as several cases started to be linked and a pattern emerged, the disease was given a name. At the time it was being identified the disease was mainly inAmericaand some parts ofAfrica, but of course it was already spreading about the world.
This was the time when it became a well known disease because it was very effective at spreading and it seemed to be sticking to certain people types, homosexuals and haemophiliacs appeared to be the most affected groups. This was of course a big clue in identifying how it spreads.
Once you have a major disease like AIDS that spreads through sexual intercourse, you’ve got a disease that is going to be extremely hard to stop.
The story doesn’t start with the 1980s though. Scientists have a record from 1959 of a man who died in the Congoof a mystery disease that, thanks to a kept sample, has now been identified as AIDS (http://www.aegis.com/news/sfe/1998/se980201.html).
HIV appears to have crossed the species barrier from Chimpanzees to Humans. There are two strains of HIV in humans, HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is also found in Chimpanzees, though they do not suffer in the same way as Humans do, possibly because they have developed a resistance of some description (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/269306.stm)
HIV-2 came to humans from Monkeys, thought it is also believed that HIV-1 got to Chimpanzees from Monkeys originally (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0612_030612_hivvirusjump.html)
Exactly how HIV came into humans is not known, eating of bushmeat or getting infected blood into a cut or sore seems to be the most common hypothesis and it certainly seems a plausible explanation of how the infection crossed the species barrier into Humans. As someone who has lived in remote parts of Africa and seen and heard of some of the things that happen, I certainly have no difficulty imagining this scenario occurring, the science of how that allows a virus to cross infect a species is a separate issue.
There is some controversy over the origins of HIV though, with some people linking it to the Polio vaccines of the 1950s. These vaccines (which were oral) where created using Chimpanzee tissue. There are also a few slightly more wacky suggestions too. As far as I can tell, these alternative ideas stem from an idea that it was either some form of human mistake or, more cynically, part of a greater conspiracy. Proof is the missing factor in all these other ideas.
Regardless of what one chooses to believe about how HIV first appeared in Humans, there is the issue of cross species infection. First there is from Monkeys to Chimpanzees and then there is from Chimpanzees to Humans. Whether it is through ingestion of infected blood, a laboratory mistake or a mad scientist trying to kill the world, the issue that can not be ignored is the relationship between the HIV virus and that found in Monkeys and Chimpanzees. The virus trail leads to that point no matter how you follow it. Somehow HIV, a virus that is staggeringly similar to the SIV virus in our tree swinging cousins, appeared in Humans. The only conclusion one can come to is that SIV is the parent of HIV. HIV appears in Humans as the result of Human tissue or blood coming into contact with the SIV virus from a Monkey or Chimpanzee.
The only way to avoid the conclusions that HIV is the result of a cross species infection is to invoke special creation. Either it spontaneously appeared, or God created it; the former is silly and the latter brings up so many questions about the character of God that it would take a very brave creationist to try it on. Such a person would also have to explain measles, influenza A, Ebola, SARS and dengue; all of which have come to Humans from another species.
There is another challenge to overcome if the following page is correct (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/aids/virus/tree.html); that is the implication that the HIV virus crossed into Humans multiple times.
Evolution of HIV and AIDS
HIV in Humans is not pleasant (http://www.everydayhealth.com/hiv-aids/effects-of-hiv-on-body.aspx) and will likely lead to AIDS (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/HIVAIDS/Understanding/howHIVCausesAIDS/Pages/HIVcausesAIDS.aspx).
The HIV virus has changed and mutated over the past 30 years to the point that there are different identifiable strains of the virus, this is how evolution works, separated populations develop their own mutations and characteristics and if they remain isolated long enough, will eventually become separate species. HIV’s mutations and can be tracked to several sub categories of the original (http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/medicine_04).
HIV is a very changeable virus and is very quick to become resistance to the drugs used against it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIV_Drug_Resistance). This is evolution in action, without it, the virus would be much more stable and therefore easier to treat and kill off.
However, all is not lost, we Humans are fighting back too and there are mutations that are giving resistance to help the fight (http://www.thetech.org/genetics/news.php?id=13).
As if all of the above is not enough, we now have FIV (http://jvi.asm.org/cgi/reprint/68/4/2230.pdf), a Feline equivalent to HIV-1.
HIV / AIDS is nasty, you don’t want it and you don’t want anyone you love to get sick that way either. The wonders of nature do not favour anything, not even us Humans.
Viruses are good at adaptation. HIV / AIDS is an especially good example of a virus that mutates rapidly. Rapidly enough to not only cross the species barrier multiple times and to multiple species, but also to resist our attempts at controlling it by rapidly mutating defences against our attacks.
You can’t look at the way HIV / AIDS has spread and changed and not be impressed by its effectiveness. Effectiveness that demonstrates the science behind evolution. HIV / AIDS was not created and it has not remained constant.