Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Reflections on HIV

In my undergraduate education, one of my classes required me to watch "And the Band Played On" which was based on a book of the same name and details the early days of the HIV epidemic. The movie had a profound effect on me and inspired me to study viruses in order to help humanity. I've included a link to the movie here as it highlights several interesting aspects including the intersection of science and politics, which is often not good for scientists. In those early days, the disease was dismissed as just a problem for the gay community and was therefore of no consequence. Of course viruses ignore the idea that they should limit themselves to a single group and soon rich, white hemophiliacs were found to have contracted the virus after receiving blood transfusions. The resulting epidemic was devastating and had a huge impact on my childhood as I grew up in the 1980s.  People were scared of HIV and it permeated the sex education classes that I took.

HIV has taken a heavy toll on people worldwide; however, it has also impacted the lives of several high profile celebrities including Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Easy-E, and Magic Johnson. Rock Hudson was the first widely known celebrity to die as a result of AIDS due to HIV and although tragic, his death was a turning point in the struggle against the virus. Prior to his death, funding, both public and private, was almost non-existent. After his death, hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into HIV/AIDS research. Rock Hudson gave HIV/AIDS a face that people could recognize and not just brush off. Although these celebrities are some of the more visible faces of those that have died or are currently living with HIV, millions of others have died from AIDS as a result of HIV infection. The epidemic has been particularly severe in Sub-Saharan Africa. At one time, being diagnosed with HIV was a death sentence as the immune system would be severely compromised and secondary infections would take advantage of that. Times have changed though. Much more is known about the biology of HIV and with anti-retroviral therapy (ART), HIV titer can be very low and the rate of transmission significantly reduced. People can live a normal life and have a family who are free of HIV (provided they have access to ART which can be quite expensive).

Despite all of the progress the stigma remains. Some claim that HIV is divine punishment for moral transgressions whereas others claim a vast conspiracy surrounds HIV with it being fabricated despite the evidence. These people attack those who they see as promoting the idea of HIV being real. Even today, some celebrities still hide their HIV status to try and save face, often paying blackmailers to keep their secret. I had hoped that we were past this as a society and that we realized that we are talking about a virus that doesn't check a list to see if it is going to infect someone deserving or if they are innocent. Unfortunately it seems that the stigma and judgement still remains. So to be clear: HIV is a virus and lacks higher reasoning (or any neural activity) that would allow for it to be selective in who it infects and only target those who "deserve" it due to their morality. HIV will infect anyone it can regardless of race, gender, orientation, age, religion, or socio-economic standing.