Saturday, 7 January 2012

HIV and AIDS in Africa : The source, return and negligence

Fela Kuti, from Nigeria, one of Africa's
best known and most popular musicians
died of Karposi's Sacorma,
an AIDS related complication, in 1997.
AIDS remains quite prevalent in Africa,
compared to the rest of the world.
At the same time,
Africa is barely doing any research
into the disease, or putting much
effort to reduce its spread.
(image source: rollogrady.com) 
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a disease that has wrecked quite some havoc across Africa. "Although Africa is home to about 14.5% of the world's population, it is estimated to be home to 69% of all people living with HIV and to 72% of all AIDS deaths in 2009." says Wikipedia. 


AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and is usually an advanced stage of the HIV virus leading to death. With treatment though, HIV may not progress to AIDS.

In Africa, HIV statistics are quite complex, with Southern African countries being the most affected with a more than a 15% national infection rate. Eastern African countries are in the medium with 8% while Western African countries are in the lower percentages, with most at less than 5% , due to a weaker and less infectious West African strain of HIV. There are exceptions though, countries like Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have a lower statistic compared to their regions. It appears war somehow restricts the spread of HIV with Angola's been about 2% compared to the region's 15% . However, DRC, with a lower rate,  had almost the same number of AIDS related deaths as Kenya in 2009, possible due to lack of medication in the country. Cameroon, a West African nation, has quite high prevalence.


Also worth noting, is that the HIV virus arrived in Southern Africa way after it had hit the rest of the continent.


Where did HIV come from?

But where did HIV/AIDS come from. Experts say that the notion that HIV came from people having sex with monkeys in Africa highly unlikely, given Africa's stern culture . We are yet to even accept gays as part of the society, leave alone have sex with monkeys.


However, the fact that HIV came from Africa, or primates , is still highly suspected. It is thought that HIV somehow jumped from monkeys/chimpanzees in West Africa in the 1800s during the slave trade, probably through the food chain. (Note that chimpanzees and gorilla's are still delicacies in Cameroon). Primates suffer from a HIV related virus know as Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV).


Slaves and their masters then carried the virus over to North America, where slaves were traded and needed. The virus then mutated over the years to fit into it's new host.

Discovery of AIDS and HIV

It was not until 1980 that the AIDS syndrome (note, AIDS is not a virus, but a syndrome) was observed in a group of gay men in the United States by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The men exhibited a weakened immune system and what used to be a rare cancer known as Karposi's Sarcoma, which is caused by one of the eight Herpes viruses. Herpes viruses affect up to 90 % of the human population, but remain inactive until the immune system is weakened.


Scientist then looked into what caused AIDS, with two rival groups of scientists publishing different discoveries of the HIV virus in the same edition of a science journal. The HIV name was chosen as compromise between the names chosen by the two groups. The controversy was far from dying out with one group been awarded half the Nobel Science prize for the discovery of the HIV virus, with the other group been ignored (The other half went to scientists researching Cancer).

HIV might have then spread from North America back to Africa, where it remains prevalent due to various factors. 

Infection and transmission of HIV

Sexual transmission is the most famous mode of HIV transmission, though the virus basically spreads through any means which involves exchange or contact of blood, mucus and other bodily fluids. Sexual organs are a bit resistant to infection during unprotected sex , and one may even have unprotected sex with an infected person, without being infected. However, anal sex is quite risky as the wall of the rectum is not built to be resistant to infections.

Sniffing drugs and drug needles are common modes of spread.

The cure for HIV
To date , a cure for HIV is yet to be found, though drugs known as Anti Retro-viral (ARVs) manage the progress of HIV to AIDS, which when untreated , takes 10 years. With ARVs , a HIV patient can live for 20 to 50 years before the disease progresses to AIDS. However, it requires more than 100 years of ARV treatment to get rid of HIV.

The Berlin Patient who got cured of HIV

There is at least one person who has been  cured of HIV. Known as the Berlin patient for his treatment in Germany, the HIV patient was suffering from blood cancer, requiring a bone marrow transplant.

It is know that a small percentage of the European race is resistant to HIV because they have a mutation in the genes, their blood cells lack a feature where the HIV virus attaches itself when multiplying in the body.

During two bone marrow transplants, the Berlin patient was given bone marrow from a donor resistant to HIV. It was later observed that the amount of HIV in his body later reduced to undetectable levels.


Bone marrow transplant is however a very risky and painful operation.


Gene Mutation Therapy
Researchers in a US college have used the same concept of bone marrow transplant to modify the genes of 10 HIV patients to omit the points that HIV attaches itself to, then re-introduce the genes back to their bodies. The experiment is in it's early stages, only recently have been declared that the genes can safely exist and multiply in the body. Later stages will focus on multiplying the genes in a human's body to almost 100 per cent. Of the test group, only one patient has had their HIV reduce to undetectable levels, having had the mutation occurring naturally in his body. For the rest of the group, it was observed that HIV had stopped increasing, even when they were take off ARVs.

More on Cancer and HIV

Cancer is a disease that results from body cells mutating, or behaving in an abnormal manner. Thy tend to multiply uncontrollably , thus causing harm to the body.

HIV multiplies by attaching itself to body cells and attacking them.
 
From above, we have seen that the body can naturally evolve to become resistant to HIV, and that cancer treatment has led to at least one "cure".


A group of researchers are now looking into returning the favour, by learning from HIV to tackle blood cancer. This time, they have modified cell genes to attach themselves to tumours attack them, killing them.


Likewise, this measure has been successful in killing tumours, though it needs more work as it also kills healthy cells.


Stalling of the African vaccine
Most HIV/AIDS cure research is targeted at the European and North American population who can afford it and also make a tidy profit for the researchers.

An early discovery vaccine known as AIDSVAX was found to be effective to some degree in Asian and Africa races, but ineffective in Caucasian(white) races. Experimentation  of AIDSVAX halted as no African or Asian country was willing to foot the bill, with the general population regarded too poor to be commercial viable once successful.

HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries
Brazil has a population of 190 million, between 460,000 to 810,000 people in the country live with HIV/AIDS resulting in between 2,000 and 25,000 deaths in 2009.

India has a population of 1,210 million and about 2.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

Kenya has a population of 40 million with 1.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS and 80,000 deaths in 2009.

Brazil has an ambitious program to produce ARVs locally and provide all people who need treatment with the drugs, including distribution through prostitutes.

There is little information about HIV/AIDS research in Africa, though it is mostly funded by US government agencies.


Private research in HIV/AIDS is mostly targeted at profitable solutions thus largely ignoring Africa. At the same time, with HIV largely controlled in the developed world, research is moving into more profitable areas such as Cancer and Heart diseases.


IBM has a supercomputer known as Watson that can talk and learn, like people. Watson is in medical school learning about Cancer and will soon be treating cancer patients, before moving on to learn about heart diseases.


Africa governments are still not treating HIV/AIDS with the seriousness it deserves, with more focus still put on politics, and HIV seen as a disease of the poor.


A Wikipedia for HIV/AIDS research?

While much is published about HIV/AIDS research in medical journals , there should be efforts to publish this in a Wikipedia  like website, and share research between various countries and researchers. This will also have the effect of attracting hobbyist researchers who will do HIV/AIDS research as a personal challenge/hobby.


The strain put by HIV on Africa is worth significant funding from African governments in finding a lasting way to stop, or control the spread of HIV.


It should be unacceptable for one person to be infected by HIV. Remember to always use a condom when having sex.

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