HIV is definitely one of the more prevalent viruses of the modern era. This comes from its pandemic status, lack of cure and the fact that it is transferred mainly through the physical act of love. Luckily for those of us born in the 90s, we missed the mass fear and panic over the virus, which was really quite a big deal through the 80s and into the early 90s.
While incidences in the west have dropped dramatically, in places such as South Africa the pandemic is still a huge problem. However there are still certain high risk groups – such as gay men and sex workers – present in the Western world.
Given the horrible history behind the virus, it’s heartwarming that it’s now completely possible for people with the virus to live a happy, long and fulfilling life, as long as they have access to medication. However, the associated stigma is still prevalent in society today.
While the virus was first identified in the 1980s, it wasn’t immediately clear as to where it actually came from. Based on the identification of a similar virus in a chimpanzee in 1999, it is believed that the virus originated here and at some point crossed species. However, one heated evening of monkey-man passion isn’t considered to be the cause.
The most accepted theory is the hunter theory. This theory states that infected chimpanzee meat was consumed, or blood from one entered the cut of a hunter, after which the virus mutated in the human host. This theory also explains why there are different strains of the virus, as the virus would mutate differently in different hosts. If this theory is true, it’s interesting to see how our subjugation of animals can directly affect our own species in such a large way. It is worth adding here that AIDs is not a virus nor is it contagious: it is brought on by the final stages of the HIV virus when the immune system is at its weakest.
The Trojan Horse
The virus itself works by implementing itself in the DNA of the host. When it does so, the viral DNA tricks the normal DNA into thinking that it is a part of it. This leads to replication of the virus. Basically, the whole thing works like a Trojan Horse, which is one reason it is quite difficult to cure.
There are a few other reasons why the virus is so hard to cure. One is that the virus mutates very rapidly. Apparently during the first 10 days of infection, HIV will mutate more times than influenza ever has in the whole of human history. In addition to this, the virus also attacks the immune system – the thing dedicated to catching and destroying it – and manipulates it. Eventually it will shut it down if left untreated; this is when the onset of AIDS occurs.
One study – the PARTNER study – found some interesting results. It looked at a wide range of couples with one HIV positive and one negative partner. The positive partners were on medication and therefore had an “undetectable viral load”. Over the course of two years of unprotected sex there were zero cases of transmission; the implication here is that there is no reason to fear infection from someone who is positive and on medication.
At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own health. As such, we should take the necessary steps not only to protect against HIV, but also against other sexual infections. The main message to take away is that while the virus is hard to cure, there is no reason to fear or stigmatise those who have it. In addition, it’s completely possible to have fulfilling relationships with positive people; it’s up to you whether they’re friendships, relationships, business partnerships or one night stands.
Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.