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March 2000
Myths and Realities: HIV/AIDS

By Samantha Knowlden



Myth: HIV is a new disease that began in the 1980s.
Reality: The oldest known sample of HIV positive blood was collected in 1959 in Zaire, leading many scientists to believe the virus appeared sometime in the early 1950s. However, a new study conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory analyzed the genetic makeup of various strains of the virus showing a common origin of around 1930.

According to the Los Angeles Times, researchers believe that HIV-1 (the most common form of HIV) is a mutation of a virus that came from chimpanzees in central West Africa. However, they still do not know how the virus was passed to humans. Many theories speculate that it was the result of trapping and eating chimps. For example, during the building of the Congo-Ocean railway and other projects in the 1920s and 30s, over 20,000 African people who were forced to labor by the French colonialists suffered and died from malnutrition and other causes. It is suspected that many may have eaten chimps to survive. Since the 1930s, there has also been a growing demand for live chimps—trapped for zoos, circuses and research. These increases in chimp-human interaction would have led to more bites, scratches and contact with chimpanzee blood, increasing the chances of transmission.

It is believed that the virus was isolated in small communities in Africa until it mutated into a more virulent form and/or new routes of transmission were made possible. The first mass transmission between humans may have occurred during the 1950s when large-scale vaccination efforts—some suspected of containing infected simian blood—were made and health workers used the same few needles to inject hundreds of thousands of people. It is also possible that truck drivers and other travelers transmitted HIV sexually after the first highways were built in the 1950s.

Myth: HIV/AIDS is a gay disease.
Reality: The World Health Organization now estimates that approximately 75 percent of adult HIV infections world-wide are from heterosexual sexual intercourse.

Myth: HIV/AIDS is no longer a threat in the U.S.
Reality: It is true that the number of cases of AIDS and AIDS deaths in the U.S. has been declining due to new drug therapies. Many people with HIV are living longer, healthier lives. However, according to a 1998 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), "Trends in the HIV & AIDS Epidemic," there are currently 650,000 to 900,000 Americans with HIV and at least 40,000 new infections each year. Infections among gay white men are decreasing. This group was initially struck the hardest by HIV. Through educating the public and political organizing, gay white men have generated research and preventive measures (some of which disproportionately address AIDS risk within this group). In contrast, HIV infections among minority groups and women are increasing.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institutes of Health (1997-1998), the proportion of reported AIDS cases occurring among women from 1985 to 1996 increased from seven to 20 percent. HIV infection is the fourth leading cause of death among women ages 25 to 44 in the U.S. and the primary cause of death among African American women of the same age (62 percent of all women reported with AIDS in 1998 were African American).

According to the CDC, HIV diagnoses among Hispanics increased 10 percent between 1995 and 1996. Hispanics made up 13 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for 20 percent of the total number of AIDS cases reported in 1998, with an AIDS incidence rate four times that of whites. African Americans made up 12 percent of the total population but 45 percent of all reported AIDS cases in 1998. The AIDS incidence rate for African Americans was eight times that of whites. African American children represented 62 percent of all reported pediatric cases. Twice as many gay African American men (ages 15-22) are infected with HIV as young gay white men. From 1994 to 1997, African Americans represented 57 percent of all HIV diagnoses.

The CDC bases many of its statistics on reports from 1994 to 1997 on a confidential HIV infection reporting system that exists in 25 states (not including Florida, New York, and California and Texas, where many Hispanic people live). So statistics on minority populations may be inaccurate.

Myth: HIV positive people can prevent themselves from developing AIDS by adopting a vegetarian diet and/or making other lifestyle changes.
Reality: Of course, adopting a healthy vegetarian lifestyle would be beneficial to anyone, but there is no known cure for HIV/AIDS, so great caution must be used when choosing or suggesting such a method as the sole means of survival. For some people this approach works and there are people and groups who will offer themselves as proof. The problems occur when people insist that this should be the only way for everybody. By contrast, there are others who will tell you that their friend or relative died prematurely because they chose this route. The only answer is that everyone is affected differently by HIV infection and there is no single right way to stay healthy.

Myth: You can’t get HIV from oral sex.
Reality: Many people have been led to believe that they can’t get HIV from oral sex. However, in a new study from the CDC, the results showed that at least 7.8 percent of a group of 102 HIV positive gay and bisexual men most likely contracted HIV through unprotected oral sex. In each of these cases, the men who contracted HIV had performed oral sex on their partners; thus, the study could have relevance to women in heterosexual relationships as well. Although oral sex is less risky than unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse, this study shows that there is a significant risk of getting HIV from frequent unprotected oral sex.

There is a frightening lack of research into HIV transmission among women who have sex with women. Since 1993, there have only been a few documented cases of women in lesbian relationships with no other risk factors who contracted HIV from having oral sex with their partners. This shows—contrary to popular belief—that there is a risk of HIV transmission between women. However, the risk could be underestimated. Previously, other incidents of woman-to-woman HIV transmission were reported but were considered insignificant or classified under heterosexual risk, drug related or other. According to CDC reports released in 1997 and 1999, "information on whether a woman had sex with women is missing in half of reports, possibly because the physician did not elicit the information or the woman did not volunteer it." The CDC apparently has not attempted to address this issue and learn more about the risks facing women who have sex with women. Little new information is known about transmission and few statistics are available on lesbian and bisexual women with HIV. Since health professionals have little to cite, many believe that there is not a problem and the myth that lesbians are not at risk is perpetuated.

Myth: AIDS is the result of recreational and medicinal drug use, not HIV.
Reality: Some groups including HEAL (Health Education AIDS Liaison) and ACT UP San Francisco (an unaffiliated splinter group of ACT UP), believe that HIV infection does not cause AIDS. They claim that HIV is harmless and noncommunicable. Led by a small number of scientists (including Peter Duesberg, one of the originators of this theory), they claim that AIDS develops in people—regardless of HIV status—as a result of recreational drug use, malnutrition and other forms of unhealth. They also believe that AIDS is caused by the toxicity of AIDS drugs, especially AZT. These groups claim that money-hungry scientists have fabricated HIV and its connection to AIDS in order to secure research grants and other money.

Many ideas presented by these groups are attractive and justifiably question the not-always-obvious political and financial motives of the medical industry. However, there are many scientific and sociological problems with this theory. Followers of this doctrine have been making the same claims since 1987, while advances in medical and social research have made discrepancies in their theories obvious. Recent research has repeatedly demonstrated how HIV replicates, kills CD4 and T cells, deteriorates a person’s immune system and, ultimately, causes AIDS. The epidemic number of HIV/AIDS cases in developing countries and resulting deaths from AIDS also disproves this myth (although supporters would claim malnutrition is the cause). Many people in developing nations cannot afford AIDS drugs and in most cases are not using recreational drugs (and certainly not all are suffering from malnutrition).


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