A story of HIV-AIDS in the early years.



I was born in the eighties. The seventies to me therefore are like the concept of giving birth, always hearing and reading about it but knowing fully well that you will never get a chance to experience it. Unless you get one of those surgeries that…let’s just move along.
Let us not kid ourselves though. We all know that the seventies were a time ruled by the mighty disco ball. Everybody wore beige turtlenecks with bell bottoms and everything was in sepia. ABBA’s picture was in every teenager’s bedroom. Men had a lot of hair on their chest and went to the beach in very short shorts. Women had huge perms on their heads and wore hot pants. The turn of the eighties therefore brought much-needed change from all this terrible rubbish. It marked the advent of the boom box, which offered better hairstyles than the Afro as this device was always placed over ones shoulders, an area with already little space as it was (no thanks to the Afro).

The boombox spreading many cheers to distant lands
Abe Lincoln with his presidential instrument

Apart from sweeping poor fashion and huge moustaches away, this decade also saw another addition in the history of the human race. A strange disease that laid everything in its path desolate. Unlike some other diseases which had existed since the time Cain and Abel had beef with each other, this was a new thing altogether. There was nowhere to refer to. There were no cave drawings of it by the Flintstones cartoons. No Egyptian had recorded it on those papers made from papyrus reeds.

Depiction of polio in Egyptian hieroglyphics
Aztec drawing of smallpox

It was not jotted down in the Sumerian Cuneiform script, what many hold as the first form of proper writing known to man. Ancient civilisations of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Nubians, Mayans, Persians and Aztecs also didn’t get a chance to warn us amidst their hectic schedules.
Middle Earth also knew nothing of it. Gandalf the Gray had seen many things in his thousands of years of existence and knew many herbs to cure almost anything, except for this disease. He was also far too busy acting in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to care for such problems.

As with most diseases though, it is always until later that we realize it was with us all along. In this case, the first ever recorded case of what would later be called AIDS was in 1959 by a poor chap from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another woman from colonial Congo was second to have the disease confirmed. Two other dudes from the late sixties and some kids from Uganda in the early seventies were shown to have had the disease as well. This was however shown much later on after laboratories could comfortably tell the presence of the virus in a sample. Archived tissue and blood samples from these cases were therefore used to give a peek into the history of this disease. It is also held that the disease found its way from the Africans to Haiti before being exported to America. Some also state of reports of the disease from countries as far as Sweden and Tanzania in the late seventies.

The disease however only caught the eye of the medical community when it reached America’s population of gay men. In this population, it found better modes of transmission that would make its spread more furious. The disease was almost always characterised by a terrible pneumonia with a side serving of opportunistic infections like Kaposi ’s sarcoma, a hateful cancer that involves the skin.

The first description of AIDS by the CDC as appearing in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on June 5th, 1981

All the signs of the disease pointed to the fact that patient’s immune system started failing. The disease was also largely seen to be sexually transmitted. It was therefore not a shock for it to be thought as a disease of “the gays”. A point that was later underscored as many clever people in thick-rimmed glasses had meetings and decided to call it the “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” or “GRID” in short.

Newsaper clipping of “gay plague”
Frontpage news. AIDS can infect many groups of people.

Some also called it “gay cancer”. There was not much known of the disease at this point by the public except that a bit of buggering would sure as hell send you down the treacherous path to a painful death. It was not long after that it was realized that other people could get the disease too. Haemophiliacs, Heroin users and Haitian immigrants were zeroed out in this observation, which along with Homosexuals, caused some to call it the “4H disease”. Political correctness it seems was still an evolving concept. Another meeting was held. Many biscuits were served and a name that would better describe the breadth of this disease was agreed upon. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This name would stick for years, long after I was born, went to school and even started working. It may even survive Robert Mugabe himself after his eventual death in 3010.

The disease was later shown to be caused by a virus. The virus was discovered separately by a scientist from America and the other from France. They both gave them different names to suit their tastes. Sadly, it was later decided by bespectacled men in hideous suits that both names must be dropped and a common name adopted, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It was quite the drama in 2008 when the Nobel price was given to the French scientist (and his colleague) and not the American one for the discovery of this virus. In fairness though, the French declared their finding months before the Americans.
Theories of the origin of this virus have also placed the event that led to the virus crossing the species line into human turf well before the 1950s. Yes, the HIV virus is now known to have evolved from its cousin that affects non-human primates, the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV). SIV is believed to have infected sweaty half-naked guys as they hunted for bush meat in forests in colonial French Equatorial Africa. The unique and complex blend of the Scramble for Africa and bush meat practices are thought to have led to SIV having a new home in the human body where it could have a shower, have a change of clothes and learn to adapt and start infecting humans, even though it remains purely a virus of non-human primates. Wide vaccination programs against tropical diseases of the time by colonial powers also saw the sharing of needles between many people.

While these people with many degrees thought of possible ways in which the virus emerged, some thought of other theories that appeal only to our more curious side. Operation INFEKTION was once such theory. It was a secret mission by Russia’s KGB that aimed at promoting the theory of HIV as being part of an experiment for their biological weapons program. They even duped an American professor into believing this theorem. They really need to make a movie about this, and have Meryl Streep act as the KGB mastermind, and the duped professor at the same time (we all know she can do it).

Others also proposed that the disease was part of an elaborate plan to cull the growing populations of African Americans, Hispanics and gay people in America; An instrument of genocide if you will. Again, we really need a movie on this already.
At this rate, who knows what we will discover next. That indeed the Mayans and Genghis Khan himself tried to warn us? I guess we will have to wait for the guys in lab coats to figure that out for us. Let them press many keys on the keyboards and do a battery of lab tests to find this out. Let the conspiracy theorists make stuff up from their bedrooms in their mother’s houses as well.

So much has gone into finding about this disease though. So much time, sweat and money has been invested to find out what now is basic knowledge; what causes it, how it is spread and how to prevent it. Medicines to lengthen the lives of people with this virus have also been developed and distributed in their drones. These events have not come easy as they have and still are interspaced with pain, tears, hate, stigma, greed and anger. As a result, millions have died from this illness to date, and millions more live with it. A cure remains to be found.

The Red ribbon that symbolises solidarity with people living with HIV. The symbol was created by the Visual AIDS organisation based in New York in 1991.

For a disease that has a slang name as the “Hi Five”, (with Five being the Roman Number V, to make the name HI’V’), it feels like it sucker-punched humanity instead. This disease is like those uncles we all had in our childhood. Chain-smokers with dirty fingers and very vigorous handshakes and hi-fives. They thought that we could take it with our puny hands and didn’t know how terrified we were of them and their guts to come with cigarettes in the house during their visits. Let us hope that we will outgrow them and offer a matching handshake with time.

Now, for those that are saying “Martin, shut up and give us the best movies that cover people living with HIV/AIDS”, you can check out my most favourite one, “Precious” (2009). This is a movie with very intense emotions I must say. I got halfway through “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) before I had to go to the kiosk to buy milk. I never got to finish it…so you can tell me whether it was any good in the comment section below.

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