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Did Doctors Jumpstart the HIV Epidemic?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, Rapid Spread, Doctors, Needles

Wouldn’t it turn the world upside down if people discovered that prostitutes, drug users, and explosive populations weren’t the catalyst for rapidly growing instances of HIV? How would people react if they found out that doctors might ultimately be responsible for the rapid spread of HIV?

We may never know for sure just what caused the virus to spread so rapidly, but two recent studies are suggesting that HIV may have made serious headway as a result of well-intentioned doctors’ attempts to wipe out tropical diseases on the African continent. Sure, they were only trying to help, doing what they could to save lives. But according to the studies, during the first part of the 20th century, doctors may have used dirty needles which simultaneously saved lives and created a means for launching an HIV pandemic.

Experts already know a few things about the history of HIV. According to common medical theory, it was a disease that came to humans by way of chimps. It morphed into human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Africa some time during the 1920s. It is possible that a hunter was infected through a bite or scratch. But experts are still scratching their heads when it comes to determining just how the virus that causes AIDS could spread, infect and kill so many people so quickly.

In one of the studies published recently, researches went door-to-door in the villages of the Central African Republic questioning seniors that had been exposed to a sleeping sickness epidemic that swept through the area from 1936 to 1950. Treatment for the infections was accomplished through a series of painful injections. Using hepatitis C and the HTLV-1 virus as models for how the HIV virus may have been transmitted, researchers found that those who were treated for sleeping sickness were 3 times as likely to have hepatitis C, and similar results emerged for HTLV-1.

So what happened? During these times doctors didn’t have access to single-use syringes. In addition, sterilization practices were not efficient. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the connections here and understand the broader implications.

If doctors are the real culprits in the spread of HIV, it wouldn’t be the first time that good intentions by the establishment have cost billions of dollars, not to mention many, many lives. For instance, overcrowding in military camps and hospitals resulted in the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. During World War I, war conditions contributed significantly to the spread of the flu. Thanks largely to overcrowding at training camps in the US and the Western Front’s trenches, the virus moved swiftly from camp to battleground to hospital infecting as much as 40% of US soldiers. Sadly, the pandemic killed many soldiers and sailors. In fact, more soldiers of all nationalities died of the flu during World War I than died at the hands of their enemies.

More recently we saw millions of doses of swine flu vaccine being thrown out. In April 2010, ABC News reported that more than 71 million doses of H1N1 vaccine were trashed because they expired before they could be used. In this case, good intentions (not to mention hysterical overreaction) led to the waste of billions of dollars.

While it’s too late for those who became victims of the HIV epidemic and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19, there is one small ray of hope in this latest HIV study: we are learning more about the virus, and that knowledge can help us avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Meanwhile, you may not want to be first in line the next time the government has a plan to save you.


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