The mystery of HIV and its origins is one that cannot be easily solved. In the thirty-odd years which have passed since the official recognition of AIDS by the CDC and the subsequent search for its cause, various theories have been floated regarding its nature, its development, its ability to adapt, our ability to combat it, and -- most importantly for some -- its origin. How did the virus come into being? Viruses are known for altering over time and according to circumstances. They have a way of "bending" in order to make due -- of manipulating themselves in such a way so as to survive. This is no less true for HIV than for influenza. Just as variants of influenza appear each year to wreak havoc on the human population, variant-strains of HIV continue to be discovered, suggesting that the virus is still developing, still finding a way to out-maneuver medical science.
However, if it is possible to discover just how HIV came to be, it may be possible to find a better way to combat it. In the animal kingdom, immunodeficiency viruses are found in felines (FIV) and in simians (SIV). Strains of SIV, particularly in Africa, show a remarkable similarity to HIV strains, suggest to many researchers that the "missing link" in the HIV origin story does indeed have something to do with the simian species of primate mammals.
Discerning the precise "link," though, has been much more difficult than evaluating the development of HIV. Assessing the development of a virus requires only a skillful eye and an ability to document change, alteration -- each new manifestation of the virus as it transforms and adapts. Discerning the origin, on the other hand, is like solving the crime. It clarifies the "event" -- takes an abstract hypothesis and puts it into concrete terms. It provides times, dates, places, persons involved. Such certainty is highly unlikely to be discovered in the case of the HIV origin story. Yet, while there are many unknowns -- many variables and factors that fail to yield solid ground, the trail has not dead-ended. Plenty of headway has been made towards discovering the precise conditions surrounding the birth of HIV. Whether scientists will one day be able to isolate it to one incident -- a single event in time -- or whether the best they will be able to do is to suggest several likely scenarios -- this much remains to be seen. For now, the clues are being followed and a better understanding of the origin of HIV is coinciding with researchers' focus on the virus' development.
In 1981, a startling new infectious disease was named by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). At the time, it appeared (in the United States) that those who contracted the disease were primarily young, homosexual males. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen. The symptoms were nothing really new. Those who had it underwent a rapid deterioration of health: they began to appear older than they really were; they lost weight, hair; they became extremely sensitive to mild and normally easily combated "opportunistic infections," which all too often appeared to physicians as the cause of the disease. Medics tried treating the various symptoms -- but an improper understanding of what was behind them made their attempts ineffective. What appeared to cancer-caused lesions on the face and arms were not merely cancer-caused lesions. What appeared to be a body's inability to combat ordinary infections was not merely as simple as that.
Moreover, those mostly affected in the United States by this immunodeficiency existed outside the mainstream culture: they were marginal, misfits, people whose ways of life did not necessarily gel with the socially-approved mores of the mainstream. By the mid-80s it was known as the "gay disease" or the "gay plague." It seemed to originate in people who preferred that style of living. Because that style was, at the time, still relatively taboo in American culture, a precise grasp of the nature of disease was far from being discerned. The answer to how it was transferred led thousands of unwitting medical patients to contract it through blood transfusions. Screeners were not yet in place to deal with this sort of virus. They soon would be.
The cause of the disease would later be identified as the human immunodeficiency virus, better known today as HIV. The disease was AIDS -- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, so-termed by the Centers for Disease Control the following year. It attacked the patient's immune system, the individual's built-in barrier against germs and viruses. It was like an enemy making Swiss cheese of one's fortifications. (Greene 2007:S94). In the face of an overwhelming inability to deal with reality of the problem (due to social stigma), it was years before its name was even really mentioned in the mainstream. It continued to fester on what was perceived to be the edge of society -- an edge probably being punished for its aberrations by a higher power. Yet, when the edge suddenly and decisively cut into the mainstream, normative portion of American society, a new awareness set in. AIDS was not going away. It was not a "gay disease." It was something that could infect anyone and that did, in fact, affect far more heterosexuals than homosexuals (Greene 2007:S94). Dealing with the virus became of utmost importance and the question facing those who wished to combat was two-fold: how did it originate, and how could it be stopped?
The first part of the question held just as much weight as the second, as researchers attempted to address the problem of HIV.
The path towards the place where much of today's focus lies was not a direct one.
Initial investigations led researchers to a variety of premature conclusions: the disease was seen as the consequence of homosexuality and drug use (since it appeared in needle sharers as well). It seemed to only appear in an element of society that was already at risk for developing some sort of immunodeficiency syndrome. After all, there was nothing believed to be healthy about either drug use or homosexuality. This misconception, however, changed radically before the decade was out. New evidence began to emerge altering the perception of the immunodeficiency syndrome. One could look to the outbreak of AIDS in the island nation Haiti. Some suspected that perhaps the cause of the disease originated here. So, the magnifying glass swung from one subset of persons and individuals to another -- from homosexuals to drug users to foreigners. Yet, such speculation was almost fruitless and to no avail. Various explorations of particular groups of subjects led to the same dead ends: AIDS was not produced by the activities of any one group; it was not the effect of some way of life. But for some reason, these persons were particularly vulnerable. Why?
Perhaps the groups were worth another look, after all. Indeed, there was something that a study of each of these particular groups could show -- and that could be determined by assessing what it was that they had in common. In each of the sub-groups, there was the possibility for the exchange of bodily fluids -- the transmission of blood, whether sexually, intravenously, or through some other form of consumption. AIDS may not have been the result so much of living in a certain manner as the result of contracting something -- like a virus.
Indeed, research began to indicate that AIDS was transmitted through the bloodstream. (Sharp, Hahn 2011). It was a communicable disease, which grew not so much out of one's "deplorable" living habits but rather out of passing from one body to the next. Elizabeth Glaser proved that AIDS was not a condition that only homosexuals or drug addicts or Third World citizens could get. Elizabeth Glaser was an expectant mother: a woman who contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion (Greene 207:S94). She was someone from the mainstream, normative side of American life. And she was not alone. Like so many others, she contracted the disease because of faulty medical practices.
The supply of blood given to Elizabeth Glaser had been unknowingly extracted from an individual who carried AIDS. At the time, no proper method was available for testing for AIDS. It was not even known how to look for it. The screenings in place for sexually-transmitted diseases already known did nothing to indicate the presence of AIDS in the bloodstream. (On the contrary, AIDS was not typically identified in a person until the disease had already ravaged the individual's system past a certain point -- signified by the extreme loss of T cells). For Elizabeth Glaser, the virus passed from the blood donor to Elizabeth to the baby which grew in Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth and her baby died of AIDS, after having had no apparent connection to homosexuals, drug users or Haitians, a wave of insistence for greater AIDS awareness finally brought more focus to bear on…