A Deadly Pandemic: How HIV Spread Across the World

During the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS pandemic blew up and became an international health crisis that has since affected more than 70 million people worldwide. For years, the source of the virus was unknown, leading to much speculation, finger pointing and isolation of many groups of people who were thought to have been responsible for the spread of the illness.

However, in recent years, researchers at the University of Oxford have compared thousands of genome sequences of the virus from different parts of the world and have discovered that a perfect storm of political and socioeconomic factors likely played a role in the spread of HIV/AIDS, turning it into a worldwide health issue. Read on to learn how it happened…

What Is HIV?

HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, is a “lentivirus” or “slow virus” which attacks the immune system and eventually evolves into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) if left untreated. By attacking the body’s natural defense system, HIV/AIDS makes patients more susceptible to life threatening diseases like cancer or infections.

There are two types of HIV: HIV-1, which is more infective and the main strain in the world pandemic, and HIV-2, which is less transmittive and mostly found in West Africa.

HIV is predominantly contracted through unprotected sexual intercourse, blood transfusions, the sharing of intravenous needles and through pregnancy in which it transfers from the mother to the fetus.

While there is no cure for HIV, with proper treatment, it can be controlled through antiretroviral therapy, which lowers the chance of transmission and the devolvement into AIDS. Today, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer a death sentence if you have access to treatment, but in many undeveloped parts of the world, it continues to be a major health threat to the population.

Leonie Pauw / Shutterstock.com
Leonie Pauw / Shutterstock.com

How HIV Spread Across the Globe

There are three main unavoidable factors that aided in the worldwide transmission of HIV, the first being international travel. With the advent of commercial flight, it became easier than ever to travel across the world and with that, the sexually transmitted disease was able to spread across the globe.

Drug use also played a part in the spread of HIV, as it is commonly contracted through the sharing of needles. The popularity of heroin after the Vietnam War is thought to have contributed greatly to the pandemic, as it was common to share needles among users before the association with HIV transmission was discovered.

Another factor in the transmission of the virus was the blood industry. In countries like the USA where blood can be sold, many drug users who’d unknowingly contracted the virus sold their blood, which was then used in blood transfusions, transferring the virus to those who received it.

ANURAKE SINGTO-ON / Shutterstock.com
ANURAKE SINGTO-ON / Shutterstock.com

Roots in Africa

Scientists uncovered the source of HIV in 1999 when they studied the frozen tissue of a chimpanzee and found it was infected with a simian virus (SIMcpv) that was almost identical to HIV-1. The chimpanzee originated from a group of chimps common to West and Central Africa.

It’s believed that HIV was transmitted from chimpanzees to humans through hunting. Those who handled the infected blood of chimpanzees or ingested the meat of the animals are believed to have been the first humans to contract the virus, where it adapted into HIV-1. HIV-2 is thought to have been contracted in a similar manner.

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
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