Friday, July 27, 2012


A recent post on about how Bryan Fischer of The American Family Association denies that HIV causes AIDS, led me to think about how AIDS got identified as a “gay disease” to begin with.

According to author Nathan Wolf in his book The Viral Storm

The history of HIV begins with a relatively simple ecological interaction - the hunting of chimpanzees by monkeys in central Africa. While people normally think about the origins of HIV occurring sometime in the 1980’s, the story actually begins about 8 million years ago when our ape ancestors began to hunt.
More precisely, the story of HIV begins with two species of monkeys, the red-capped mangabey and the greater spot-nosed guenon of central Africa.They hardly seem like the villains at the center of the global AIDS pandemic, yet without them this pandemic would never have occurred. . . One thing these monkeys share is that they are naturally infected with SIV, the simian immunodeficiency virus. Each monkey has its own particular variant of this virus, something it and its ancestors have probably lived with for millions of years. Another thing these monkeys have in common is that chimpanzees find them very tasty.

He goes on to say, 

No matter what the particular order of cross-species jumps, at some moment a chimpanzee became infected with both the guenon virus and the mangabey virus. The two viruses recombined to create an entirely new mosaic variant, neither mangabey virus nor guenon virus.
. . .The virus, now known to harm chimpanzees, would persist in chimpanzee populations for many years before it would jump from chimpanzees to humans sometime in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. And it all started because chimpanzees hunt.

 Wolf has a lot to say about AIDS, since The Viral Storm is about pandemics, and what aspects of human life and technology allow them to spread. Here’s a section about the first known AIDS patient:

The earliest historical HIV samples date from 1959 and 1960, twenty years before AIDS was even recognized as a disease. In an amazing piece of viral detective work, evolutionary virologist Michael Wirobey and his colleagues managed to analyze a virus from a specimen of a lymph node from a woman in Leopoldville, Congo (now Kinshasa, DRC).
The lymph node had been embedded in wax for over forty-five years. By comparing the genetic sequence of the virus they found in the specimen with other strains from humans and chimpanzees, they were able to attach rough dates for the first ancestor of the human virus. While the genetic techniques they used cannot pinpoint dates closer than a few decades, they concluded that the virus split from the lineage sometime around 1900 and certainly before 1930. They also concluded that by the time the woman in Leopoldville became infected with HIV in 1959 there was already a significant amount of genetic diversty of HIV in Kinshasa, suggesting that the epidemic had already established itself there.

Wolf goes on to talk about why it took medical researchers so long to recognize AIDS as a disease, and then about the social changes that occurred in central Africa that led to the spread of the disease:

In 1892 steamship service began from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the very heart of the central African forest. The steamship service connected populations that had been largely separated, creating potential for viruses that might previously have gone extinct in local isolated populations to reach the growing urban centers. In addition, the French initiated the construction of railroads, which, like shipping and road lines, connect populations. This produced another mechanism for viruses to spread from remote regions to urban centers, effectively providing a larger population size of hosts for a spreading virus.
. . . Large groups of men were conscripted, often forcefully, to build railroads.Moore and his colleagues note that the labor camps were populated mostly by men, a condition that dramatically favors transmission of sexually transmitted viruses like HIV. . .

 It's much harder to see AIDS as "the gay plague" if you look at the entire history of the crossover of AIDS from monkeys to chimps to humans and not just at the first cases in the US. It's a fluke that the first person to transmit AIDS from Africa to the US was a gay male. Even if AIDS had never made it across the ocean from Africa, it would still be ravaging the African continent, killing women and children as well as men (as it does here).Whatever Bryan Fischer’s narrative would have been then, I doubt he would have blamed colonialism or hunting the way he blames homosexuality for causing the disease. He might even have been willing to accept that this disease, like many other diseases,  is caused by a virus. 

1 comment:

  1. "He might even have been willing to accept that this disease, like many other diseases, is caused by a virus."

    Possibly, although given the disease would probably have been established in the US in drug using and marginalised populations* I think he'd have found other ways to blame people. Even with heterosexual transmission the stigma remains - which is partly because it's associated with sex, and partly because it's lethal if untreated.

    The main change would probably have been a huge focus on sexual behaviour outside of marriage in the case of predominantly heterosexual transmission, and an even further demonising of drug users, particularly injecting drug users in the case of IDU transmission.

    Both of course would still have sinned in the eyes of God and brought their doom on themselves.

    I did think about writing an alternate history set in a world where HIV didn't enter the gay population, but was instead confined in the US to IDUs. So much of the research was done because there was an active, vocal, reasonably wealthy group pushing for it, being organised and (importantly) refusing to be silenced.

    *The CDC rather notoriously included Haitians on the list of possible at-risk populations, thereby marginalising an already marginalised group.