HIV/AIDS. From a Medical Mystery to Future Research 🔍

Since its discovery in 1981, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS has become the greatest public health challenge in recent history. Currently, over 34 million persons worldwide are living with HIV. What is HIV, AIDS? How did it all begin? Let's take a dive into the history and current context of this condition📚.

What are HIV and AIDS?

Even though medicine has evolved in the last 40 years, HIV/AIDS is still an important public health concern. Over the years, 60 million people got infected with HIV and 25 million deaths occurred due to AIDS. Developing countries have the highest rate of mortality (especially sub-Saharan Africa).

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. There are two types of this virus: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the principal cause of developing AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and it has spread globally. HIV-2 is geographically restricted to West Africa and the transmission rate is lower. Most of the HIV-2 cases do not develop into AIDS. Therefore, AIDS is an infectious disease that develops after an infection with HIV.

HIV can be transmitted through numerous ways:

sexual: 80% of adults with HIV get infected after exposing mucosal surfaces (such as genital area), therefore AIDS is primarily classified as a sexually transmitted disease

percutaneous: through injuries that expose blood or shared use of needles

perinatal: from mother to infant, during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding

blood transfusions

How does HIV cause AIDS?

Even though it has been researched for decades, the process in which HIV leads to AIDS is not elucidated but many hypotheses exist. Once inside the body, HIV-1 replicates and spreads very fast. The virus causes a loss of essential nutrients to the human body, such as selenium, cysteine, glutamine and tryptophan. As a consequence of these depletions, major symptoms of AIDS appear: immune system collapse, muscle wasting, higher susceptibility for cancer and heart conditions, premature aging, skin conditions, depression, diarrhea, psychosis and dementia. With a weak immune system, the body is susceptible to other infections as well. High transmissions of other STDs, such as gonorrhea and genital herpes are linked to HIV.

In many cases, symptoms of AIDS develop a long time after an individual got infected with HIV, due to the virus slowly creating serious deficiencies.

How did HIV suddenly appear?

Primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, mangabeys) are usually infected with many viruses, and some of them manage to be transmitted cross-species (from one species to another). One of those viruses is HIV. Interestingly enough, the HIV isn't deadly for the animal host. Originally from African primates, the HIV has undergone cross-species transmission and genetic modifications that resulted in humans contracting this virus and developing AIDS.

How the virus got transmitted from apes to humans, is still uncertain. Some say that it may have been through the exposure of wounds or mucous membranes to ape blood or body fluids. Such infections are presumed to have happened under the context of hunting.

The origin of AIDS pandemic

Studies show evidence that the HIV-1 spread started around 1910-1930 in colonial West Central Africa, when urban populations were expanding. All current documentation seems to suggest that the starting point of the AIDS pandemic was in Leopoldville/Kinshasa. The HIV-1 virus then spread for 50-70 years around the globe before it was identified. Countries from South Africa account for one-third of today’s global HIV infections.