November 7, 2013 | by Terri Schlichenmeyer
Origins of an epidemic
Virus Hunt, HIV, AIDS, gay news, Washington Blade, Dorothy H. Crawford

‘Virus Hunt’ by Dorothy H. Crawford. (Image courtesy Oxford University Press)

‘Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV’
By Dorothy H. Crawford
Oxford University Press
$27.95
244 pages

Some things are easy to track down. Others take years, even decades.

In the new book “Virus Hunt” by Dorothy H. Crawford, you’ll see how scientists discovered the roots of HIV.

In 1981, doctors in California began noticing “rare infections … and an unusually aggressive tumor” in certain patients. Soon, the same was reported in New York, Florida and elsewhere around the country. By 1982, the disease was called AIDS.

The risk of catching AIDS seemed at first to be limited to sexually active gay men, particularly those with multiple partners. Within weeks, heroin users and hemophiliacs were added to the at-risk group, then doctors discovered that infected mothers could pass it to their children. “Fear of AIDS” became “a disease in its own right.”

By 1984, the “causative virus was identified [as human immunodeficiency virus]… and shortly thereafter the genome was sequenced …”

But where did HIV come from?

Soon after the first description of AIDS was released in 1981, Boston researchers noticed that their captive macaque population was affected with something that sounded similar.  Four years later, scientists at that research facility isolated a simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that had spread and mutated as animals were “unwittingly” shipped around to other facilities.

That led to the discovery that some SIVs are “closely related” to certain strains of HIV and share “between 62 and 87 percent” of their genetic sequences. It didn’t take much to see how the virus mutated, or how it leaped from animal to human, possibly via Africa’s sooty mangabey monkeys (a “natural host of the virus”), which were sometimes hunted for food.

But the question of where HIV came from needs to go back even further than 1981. A man from Memphis experienced AIDS-like symptoms back in 1952. SIVs were discovered in Icelandic sheep in 1949. Scientists, in fact, believe that SIVs are “ancient parasites” and that HIV has been “circulating in the African population since near the start of the 20th century.”

At the beginning of this book, author Dorothy H. Crawford indicates that the search for the beginnings of HIV is somewhat like a mystery. She’s absolutely correct. It is, but you need a Sherlockian PhD to understand it all.

That’s not to say that “Virus Hunt” is a bad book — that’s not the case at all. What readers will want to know, however, is that it’s very academic and heavily steeped in genetics, epidemiology and laboratory-level research. That’s great for anyone employed in those fields. For the layperson, this mystery’s not unreadable but it’s as far from relaxing entertainment as you’ll ever get.

Tackle this book, therefore, but give yourself some time to absorb it. Without that kind of consideration and careful contemplation, “Virus Hunt” will be hard to appreciate.

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