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HIV and the Hope of Becoming HIV-Free

Many people believe HIV started sometime in the 1980s in the United States. But this is not true.

In fact, the first acquisition of HIV most likely happened in the 1920s, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) capital, Kinshasa, as a result of an adaption of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) that was able to infect humans. The SIV virus attacks the immune systems of monkeys and apes and is very similar to HIV. 

Transfer of the SIV virus from chimps to humans was via contaminated chimp meat or exposure to chimp blood while hunting. Once inside susceptible humans the virus mutated to become what we now know as HIV. Kinshasa was a hub for trade, and the numerous transport links, migrant workers and burgeoning sex trade helped spread the virus in Africa. By the 1960s, Haiti had also become a main repository for the virus, as a result of numerous professionals returning to their homeland after many years working in the DRC.

It was the spike in numbers in the U.S. of gay men with the rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, as well as an increase in prevalence of the lung infection, PCP (pneumocystis pneumonia), that suggested to health officials that a new infectious disease was in play. By mid-1982, scientists realized the disease was also common among other populations, such as hemophiliacs and drug users. By 1983 the virus had been isolated and was originally given the name Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus (or LAV). The name was officially changed to HIV in 1986.

In March 1987, zidovudine became the first antiretroviral drug approved to treat HIV. Fast forward to today, and research shows that the effectiveness of HIV treatment is so high that the average age expectancy of someone living with HIV is 78 years – the same as what it is for someone without HIV.

Last week, the journal, Nature,reported on a man who became HIV free after a stem cell transplant. His stem cell donor had a gene mutation that conferred natural resistance to the virus, so the procedure not only treated his Hodgkin lymphoma but his HIV as well. It has now been 18 months since he last took any HIV treatment. He becomes the second man in a decade to become HIV-free through a stem cell transplant, a significant step towards finding a universal HIV cure. 

For more myths and truths about HIV, see here.

Posted: March 2019

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