Medical, Social, and Political Aspects of the AIDS Crisis: A Bibliography
Review of the Public Health Service’s Response to AIDS: A Technical Memorandum, February 1985
AIDS: The Emerging Ethical Dilemmas
Understanding AIDS: A Comprehensive Guide
AIDS has become one of the most discussed subjects in the US, yet some of its most important characteristics are not understood. From the beginning it was thought of as a homosexual’s disease, created by “promiscuity.” When a virus, HTLV-3, was found in the blood of most persons with AIDS, it was held that the virus was “the cause of AIDS.” It was also held to be the cause of the milder form of the illness known as AIDS-related complex (ARC)—a group of symptoms including swollen lymph glands in several parts of the body, night sweating, substantial weight loss, and recurrent diarrhea. All along, AIDS has been thought of as a sexually transmitted or venereal disease that is generally fatal. All of these claims, which have contributed greatly to fear of the disease, are false or misleading.
The virus is a strain of “human T-lymphotropic virus” (HTLV), which has a predilection or affinity for human T-cells—a kind of white blood cell or lymphocyte that circulates in the blood and in some bodily secretions like sperm. T-cells (named for their close association with the thymus gland, which determines their specific functions) help the immune system to limit the increase of microbes that live in the body and to fight off infectious agents. They can do so because they have acquired the capacity to recognize differences between foreign cells and those native to the body, and are able, in encountering a foreign cell, to release chemical messengers that alert other parts of the immune system.
The “AIDS virus” cannot multiply unless it inhabits T-cells. Once it does so, it can incorporate itself into the T-cell’s genetic machinery and then subvert it by instructing the cell to reproduce it rather than the T-cells. It is able to replicate itself in this way at a very quick speed—at a rate between one hundred and one thousand times the rate of uninfected cells. As more and more of the body’s T-cells are destroyed in this way, the immune system as a whole begins to collapse. The “AIDS virus” is called “HTLV-3” because it is a mutant of another human T-cell lymphotropic virus, HTLV-1, which causes leukemia by transforming T-cells and causing them to multiply excessively. HTLV-3 probably comes from central Africa and resembles a virus that is found in Old World monkeys. It is thought by some that Haitians working in Zaire in the 1960s and 1970s brought it to Haiti, where it was picked up by vacationing American homosexuals.
There is good reason to suppose that HTLV-3 is a sine qua non of AIDS. It has been found in nearly all AIDS and ARC patients but in fewer than 1 percent of those who do not have AIDS and who are not likely to contract it. Scientists at Harvard University have succeeded in infecting monkeys with an illness very similar to AIDS by injecting a close relative of the virus into them.
Infection by HTLV-3 must be …
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