and Realities: HIV/AIDS
By Samantha Knowlden
Myth: HIV is a new disease that began in
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 chimpstrapped
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 effortssome
suspected of containing infected simian bloodwere 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
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
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 cant get HIV from oral sex.
Reality: Many people have been led to believe that they cant
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
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 showscontrary to popular beliefthat 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 the...case 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,
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 peopleregardless of HIV statusas
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 persons 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).