30th Anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS
5th June 2011 was the date of the Sunday that just passed. I slept in because my wife and I had a late Saturday night enjoying a film that studied a variety of wildlife in conjunction with the sacred practice of ancient Chinese martial arts a.k.a Kung Fu Panda 2.
When we woke it was already late morning. We went through our usual routine of preparing the baby for his weekly session at the baby gym. We were ultimately disappointed when we found out that the building that housed the baby gym was flooded out due to the torrential downpour in the early morning.
So it was off to lunch at Grandma’s house followed by a relaxing walk around the Botanical Gardens. A bit of nature is always good for the baby. This was followed by dinner at the club and back home for an early night for Mondays demand an early start.
A beautifully mundane day and what I would describe as a perfect day.
It must have been an equally ordinary day for most people exactly 30 years ago on 5th June 1981 when Kim Carne’s Bette Davis Eyes was number 1 on the billboard charts. Except, it was on this day that the US CDC published in their MMWR 5 cases of previously healthy young men who were struck down by Pneumocystis Carinii Peumonia (PCP). Little did the scientists know that they had reported the very first cases of AIDS. A new disease that would eventually kill millions of people, challenge everything we thought we knew about infectious diseases and bring us to question the morality behind the commercialization of life saving therapy.
Today, we take a lot of what we know about HIV and AIDS for granted. This was not the case 30 years ago. It is hard to imagine the fear amongst the medical community as they were forced to watch helplessly as the young healthy die from infections that even children can easily fight off. No one knew if it was a bacteria or virus or fungus or maybe even a genetic disease causing this. Whatever it was, it had completely destroyed the immune system of these poor victims leaving them to be consumed alive by the first infection that came upon them.
As more and more reports of similar cases poured in from around the world, scientist scrambled to get a hold of the situation. Like a really bad episode of CSI, they fell back on epidemiology to provide some clues. What was it that the victims had in common? Find the link and find the killer.
It soon surfaced that all the patients suffering from this new disease had a similar biological marker. A specific immune cell called the CD4+ T-Cell was consistently found to be in abnormally low levels in all the victims. Something was targeting, finding and killing the CD4+ T-Cells in their body. CD4+ T-Cells were an essential part of the immune system and without it, patients were left defenseless against the most simple infections.
As it turns out, there had been a recent discovery of a virus known as Human T-Cell Leukemia Virus (HTLV). HTLV was part of a family of viruses know as retro-virus and until very recently, it was thought that retro-viruses could not infect humans. Fortunately, despite this wide held belief, some scientists held strong and pushed on with their research, developing new research techniques that made great strides in discovery that contributed significantly to the discovery of the HIV virus.
HTLV was transmitted through blood and sexual contact and also from mother to child. This fit all the evidence that has been collected on this new disease. The final piece of the puzzle came when it was found some victims caught this new disease via receiving transfusions of filtered blood. These filters would remove all micro-organisms larger than a virus so the conclusion was it had to be a virus causing this disease that by that time, was given the name AIDS.
With all these evidence in place, scientists started looking for a virus in AIDS victims that looked like the HTLV virus. 2 labs, one in the US and one in France spearheaded the efforts to identify this mystery virus.
Identifying the virus was more challenging than was realized. AIDS was a disease that took years to develop and patient usually had numerous other infections. Thus even if a virus was identified in a patient, it was difficult to tell if it was the cause of the disease or just another opportunistic infection that the patient has because of his poor immune system.
In 1983, a candidate virus was identified that seemed to fit the bill. As more research was done, this same virus was consistently identified in patients suffering from AIDS. Also, it was found that this virus was strongly attracted to CD4+ T-Cells. Similar viruses were also isolated from Macaques who had AIDS. All these evidences led the scientific community to accept HIV as a cause of AIDS in 1984. And in 1985, a blood test was developed and made available to blood-transfusion centers thus nearly eliminating the transmission of HIV via blood transfusion.
On 10th December 2008, very likely another mundane day for the most of us, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier ascended the stairs of the Stockholm Concert Hall and received the Nobel Prize for medicine for their role in the discovery of the HIV virus. No doubt a perfect day for the both of them.
About Dr. Tan
Dr. Tan graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2001. His residency was in the two largest public hospitals in Singapore; Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Singapore General Hospital.