Above: Image © ktsimage, iStockphoto

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It is one of the scariest viruses the world has encountered in recent times. It suppresses the immune system, your body’s defense against illnesses. Infections like the common cold can be fatal in a person whose immune system has been weakened by HIV/AIDS.

Today, people with HIV who have regular access to the right medicine can carry out normal lives with few symptoms. But for people in many parts of the world, the virus continues to cause much suffering and death. So what exactly is HIV, where did it come from, and how did it spread?

Understanding retroviruses

Viruses are obligate parasites. That means they can’t survive and reproduce without infecting a host. They take over the host’s genetic machinery to produce more virus particles. Viruses are usually divided into seven different classes. This makes things a little easier when scientists look for treatments.

HIV is a retrovirus in class six. Usually, DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes proteins. However, retroviruses work differently. They contain a special enzyme called reverse transcriptase. This enzyme reverses the order of things: it makes DNA from RNA!

Where did HIV come from?

HIV originated in Africa. It was likely transmitted to humans by simians (apes or monkeys). The earliest humans to get HIV were probably hunters who may have had cuts and scrapes. These open sores probably came into contact with the blood of chimpanzees infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Because simians are closely related to humans, the virus was able to pass from chimpanzees to people.

Did you know? Immunodeficiency viruses affect four types of mammals. Bovine immunodeficiency virus (BIV) affects cattle, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) affects cats, simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) affects monkeys and human immunodeficiency virus affects people.

The spread of HIV

The current worldwide HIV pandemic likely began in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the 1920s. Gradually, the disease spread to other parts of the country through migrants and sex workers. By the 1960s, the illness had spread to Haiti. This happened because many Haitians were working in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Scientists aren’t sure how and when HIV came to the North America. However, American doctors began noticing an increase in rare cancers and infections associated with HIV/AIDS in patients in the 1980s. By 1982, health professional were using the name HIV to describe the virus that lead to these illnesses. HIV/AIDS cases increased dramatically in the 1980s.

Did you know? Just like simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) jumped from chimpanzees to humans, causing HIV, house cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) cross-infected the puma.

HIV Today

Today, researchers know more about HIV than ever before. HIV/AIDS patients now have much better treatment options now than in the past. But there are still 37 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. And many of them do not have access to proper medical treatment.

There is hope, however. As I will explain in a second article, thanks to evolution, modern technology and medical discoveries, HIV may one day be a thing of the past.

Learn More!

About the history of HIV/AIDS:

Where did HIV come from?
The Aids Institute

History of HIV and AIDS overview
AVERT: Averting AIDS and HIV

About new developments in the study of HIV:

HIV evolving into milder form (2014)
J. Gallagher, BBC

Timothy Brown is ‘cured’ of HIV (2012)
G. Rajan, CurioCity

Is HIV-1 evolving to a less virulent form in humans? (2007)
K.K. Ariën, G. Vanham & E.J. Arts, Nature Reviews Microbiology 5
Abstract only. Registration or subscription required to view full text

About retroviruses:

On the general theory of the origins of retroviruses (2010)
M. Wayengera, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 7

About FIV:

Feline Immunodeficiency virus (2014)
Cornell Feline Health Centre

Krystal Rancourt

I have recently graduated from Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario and starting my master's at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My research experience so far is evaluating predator-prey interactions for the wolverine in the Yukon Territory. In future years, I would like to contribute to conservation efforts towards Big Cat and Small Cat species all over the world. Studies in the winter also fascinate me and less information is collected during this season. I also enjoy reading, writing and hiking. Never let anyone tell you what you dream isn't possible!

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