Why HIV Could Become Airborne Eventually
HIV, the virus that eventually leads to AIDS in many people, was first classified as an epidemic over 20 years ago, and continues to take millions of lives each year. Though it was first discovered in the early 60's, it wasn't properly identified and didn't become a major worldwide epidemic until at least the 80's. Since then, the virus has evolved and mutated into several different types of HIV. Most of these types are correlated with geographical locations, since some types spread more easily than others. Although HIV can not survive very long outside the human body, it's a very tough virus in comparison to others. The Influenza virus, a more fragile airborne virus, continues to evolve every year. This is because it too has learned to mutate and survive in different conditions. So this raises the question as to whether HIV could one day, and maybe soon, become airborne and cause a worldwide epidemic worse than the Black Death. While this may sound like a far-fetched notion, there seems to be a lot of science and evidence that supports this theory.
Subtypes and Groups
In recent years, scientists and researchers have discovered ways to determine different types and subtypes, or in other words, different strains or mutations of HIV. There are two main types of HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-2 is much rarer than HIV-1, and is uncommon in most places outside of West Africa. In addition to the two different types, there are also groups and subtypes as well. In HIV-1, the 3 main groups are Group M, Group N, and Group O. Group M is the most commonly found group in the world, which contains subtypes A through K and hybrides of these. Groups N and O are considered to be very rare. Subtypes are basically subgroups of HIV that may behave differently than each other, though they are still part of a common type. HIV-1 for example, is the most common type of HIV found in most people, but it has many different subtypes, which are all classified by using an alphabet system. Subtype-B for example, is most commonly found in the United States and England, while Subtype-E on the other hand, is the more common subtype found in Thailand, though this is just a nickname. It's actual name is Subtype A/E, because scientists believe it's a combination of both Subtypes A and E. A pure form of Subtype E has never been found.
In 2009, a new group of HIV-1 was discovered, which researchers have given the title Group P to. It appears to be an isolated incident so far, in which one woman in Cameroon was diagnosed with having an HIV strain belonging to this particular group. However, researchers believe many other people in the Cameroon region may have it who have not been discovered or tested yet. This particular strain resembles a specific virus of the Simian family, found in Gorillas. Scientists have always speculated that HIV came from the Simian virus, but it was previously believed that it came from a member of the Simian family that was more commonly found in chimpanzees. The woman denied eating gorilla meat, so it's very probable that she caught it from another human being. This strain of HIV was mutated so much, that it couldn't be identified with standard HIV tests that detect most of the strains in the other groups.
Mutations and Drug Resistance
The HIV virus is one of the few viruses that continues to mutate, in accordance with it's environment. No other virus seems to mutate as often, aside from the common Influenza virus (Flu virus). It's a very crafty virus that seems to learn the environment of it's host and how the host's immune system works, and mutates itself to avoid extinction. With the emergence of new medications and drugs to slow the progression of HIV to AIDS, the virus has become drug resistant in some people, as it evolved to prevent the drugs from destroying it. Drug resistant strains can be passed from one person to another, making it more difficult for researchers and pharmaceutical companies to keep the virus in check in certain people. Drug resistance isn't uncommon when it comes to viruses. In 2006, the dominant influenza strain in the United States was H3N2. In 1994, 1% of the people who had this virus were resistant to standard antiviral drugs like amantadine and rimantadine. Since then, that percentage has risen to 12% around 2003 and suddenly jumped to 91% resistance during the 2005 flu season. This is just one example that shows how fast viruses can become resistant to certain drugs. In July of 2010, scientists discovered antibodies in the human body that prevent most HIV strains from infecting cells in humans. The main way the HIV virus evades the immune system, is that it changes it's exterior composition so the immune system can not recognize it and attack it. This is similar to how a chameleon changes it's colors to evade predators. When scientists came across these particular antibodies, they realized that these antibodies are able to locate and attach themselves to a very small section of the HIV virus that does not change. Once attached to the virus, they prevent the virus from attaching itself to human cells. The only reason they have not converted this discovery into a cure yet, is because it's apparently difficult for them to create a medicine that provokes the body to create more of these antibodies.
In Subtype E, the type most commonly found in Thailand, many researchers believe that it has mutated in it's behavior and infects people more easily than Subtype B. This is because Thailand has dealt with two HIV epidemics already and much of the victims involved are heterosexual. This is a stark difference from infections in the western world, where heterosexuals are not affected quite as badly as homosexuals and those who use needles during drug use. Researchers have determined that this is most likely because Subtype E infects the Langerhans' cells in a person's body more easily than many other subtypes. The Langerhans' cells are found in many parts of the body, but particularly the vaginal mucosa (inside area of the vagina). This means that it's actually learned how to infect heterosexuals more easily, by targetting a weakness in the woman's body more aggressively. Furthermore, two studies performed at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Thai people infected with this particular subtype progressed to AIDS and died quicker than patients in Africa and North America who were infected with other common subtypes, when all were left untreated. The average time it took for a person with HIV in North America to progress to die from an HIV infection was around 11 years. In the Thai volunteers, it took around 7 to 8 years, making Subtype E a more deadly form of HIV, though researchers point out that it should respond to medicine the same way Subtype B does. These are also similar to results attained from another study, in which researchers asserted that Subtype C, the most common subtype on earth (which is found mostly in Africa, India, and Nepal), is easier for heterosexuals to catch than Subtype B and progresses to AIDS faster as well. This is probably why majority of people infected with HIV in Africa are heterosexuals. In September of 2009, a vaccine trial of combination therapy in Thailand appeared to help slow the rate of infections there, cutting them down by a third. It was tested in 16,000 people and involved the U.S. Army and the Thai government. I once read a report that stated that the first cases of Subtype E in the United States appeared in San Diego when soldiers who were stationed in Thailand, had brought it back with them after visiting some brothels over there. This makes me wonder if the U.S. Army and Government is hiding something from the general public in regards to a potential pandemic scenario. While Subtype E infections are still relatively rare in the U.S., as opposed to Subtype B, it's still a bit strange that the Army was involved in those trials over in Thailand.
Certain viruses and strains affect particular groups of animals. HIV only seems to affect humans, which is why it's called Human Immunodeficiency Virus. However, the Simian virus that researchers believe it evolved from, can affect some animals, specifically monkeys, chimps, gorillas, and cats. In March of 2009, scientists created an HIV strain that can infect monkeys, so that they can start testing HIV vaccines in monkeys instead of humans. They basically altered a gene in the human version so that it could infect monkeys as well. Now the question is, if scientists can easily alter a gene and mutate the virus like this, what would stop the virus from mutating through evolution and crossing animal species on it's own? While this may be a chilling thought, it's also been a reality when it comes to other viruses. The 1995 Hollywood movie Outbreak is about a theoretical scenario in which an Ebola virus is spread to the United States, becomes airborne, and threatens the entire country. While the Ebola virus has never, on record, become airborne, it has been a fear for many people and there has been a few incidents where people suspected that a particular strain had mutated and done just that. In the late 80's, in a testing facility in Reston, Virginia, there were many monkies from the Philippines that had become infected with Ebola. Many of them were dying on a daily basis, and the case remained classified for quite some time. Researchers believe this particular Ebola strain could only infect animals, because a few workers had exposed themselves to it accidentally, but never showed symptoms or tested positive. Some have suspected that the monkeys had acquired the virus so quickly, because it had become airborne and the government kept that detail as a secret. This theory has never been proven, but there does seem to be some evidence that lends it a little credit. While this particular strain seemed to only infect animals, it did infect a human in the Philippines. A pig farmer contracted the virus from one of his pigs, and later tested positive for the same exact strain that caused the monkey deaths in Reston. So scientists believe that it eventually learned to cross species through the pig, though not through the monkeys. This theory is further supported by the current Swine Flu epidemic, which professionals believe came from a bird, then crossed over into pigs and eventually learned to cross over into humans.
So while HIV is mostly a fluid-based virus, and no fluid-based virus has ever become airborne, most scientists agree that the possibility is there and all it would take is a small mutation for any fluid-based virus to jump from fluid to particles in the air. If HIV can cross from monkeys and Gorillas as the Simian virus, and then into humans as HIV, I don't think it's in the world's best interest to underestimate it's ability to further mutate and crossover into new transmission routes. In 1918, there was a Flu Pandemic (commonly known as the 1918 Flu Pandemic) which killed between 25 and 100 million people. It displayed different symptoms that were more severe than the types humans experience with most common flu viruses today. So it was most likely a mutated strain that died off and became extinct after it was eliminated in most of it's hosts. This specific strain killed over 25 million people in it's first 2 years of discovery, while HIV killed almost the same amount in it's first 25 years. Now imagine if an HIV strain mutated like that, and what type of effects it would have on the world. Imagine if it mutated and adapted itself to droplets in our respiratory systems. Imagine if it were to be spread as easily as the common cold or flu, through couging and sneezing and learned to target other areas of the body the way it learned to target Langerhans' cells in Subtype E. Imagine f it ended up in fecal matter in rivers and people unknowingly drank the contaminated water. A slight mutation could actually be the death of human kind as we know it.
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