A “Getting to Zero Risk” HIV/AIDS campaign article

HIV 101: In session
by Derissa Raynold

For many years scientists have been speculating the true origin of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). When researching the true origin of the HIV virus, a lot of misconceptions have arisen. People in the United States (US) believed that the virus was derived from homosexual individuals, as it was very prevalent in the homosexual community in the 1980s. A man by the name of Gaëtan Dugas was the first identified patient in the US who had acquired the HIV virus who also happened to have been homosexual. He was recklessly engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior in the gay community, without having prior knowledge nor awareness of this virus and how it was transmitted. The virus was termed as the “Gay Immunodeficiency Virus,” because, in addition to the disease being prevalent in the gay community, when someone came into contact with this virus, doctors and scientists realized it affected that person’s immune system. This eventually gave rise to the HIV epidemic in the U.S. today. Gaëtan Dugas is now more accurately regarded as one of many highly sexually active men who spread AIDS widely before the disease was identified. It is still unknown to scientists and researches as to where Gaëtan Dugas obtained the HIV virus. There were many HIV cases in other countries even before the 1980s, when this virus came to light in the US. I am writing to clarify any social misconceptions that are associated with the origin of the HIV virus, and to allow readers to become more educated about the transmission of the HIV virus.

Scientists at the Department of Epidemiology Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University have identified the hunting and butchering of wild non-human primates infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) a zoonotic retrovirus as the most probable cause that gave rise to the HIV pandemic in the human race. Zoonotic viruses are viruses that infect only animals. Therefore their findings showed that in Central Africa there must have been a cross transmission of the SIV into humans through blood-to-blood contact. They came to this conclusion by testing blood samples from people in Cameroon (Central Africa), as they come into contact with non-human primates on a daily basis due to hunting, etc. (Wolfe ND et al, 2004).

A virus is a non-living parasitic entity that can’t reproduce by itself and needs a cell from humans or animals in order to multiply (non-living meaning not being able to self- replicate) (Lodish et al, 1999). HIV is a retrovirus, (viruses that use the enzyme Reverse transcriptase to transcribe (to convert) RNA to DNA), that is classified as an immunosuppressant virus. Immunosuppressant viruses are infectious agents that affect the immune system that lead to opportunistic infections, secondary neoplasm’s-abnormal mass of tissue, and neurological manifestations (Robbins & Cotran, 2010). Unlike some viruses that contain deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), retroviruses contain ribonucleic acid (RNA), as its genetic information. Viruses do not have their own replication machinery; therefore it uses the replication machinery in this case from humans, classified as host cells. Host cells have DNA, so the virus use their magic weapon, Reverse transcriptase to transcribe its RNA to DNA. The DNA is then replicated and transcribed back into viral RNA, in order to make more complete viruses. These complete viruses are then prepared to attach to other host cells and continue its colonization like a domino affect to destroy the cells of the immune system as well as the nervous system (Robbins & Cotran, 2010).

According to the Center of Disease Control, the HIV virus is found in blood, semen, vaginal secretions and possibly breast milk. It is also highly concentrated enough to cause infection in these specific fluids. Therefore, the modes of transmission are from human blood-to-blood contact, sexual transmission, and mother to child during pregnancy, as the child is exposed to blood during birth.

Research is still being done today as to how and why the HIV virus is found in genital secretions. The virus is carried in the genital secretions and blood. It enters the recipient’s body through cuts and needles exposed to the HIV virus that are injected into the body. They also enter through abrasions in rectal or oral mucosal lining which is the lining of cells on the inside the mouth, or by direct contact with other mucosal lining cells that also have cuts/lessions (i.e vagina and penis). Viral transmission occurs in two ways, firstly through direct inoculation into the blood vessels breached by trauma. Secondly, through infection of the cells that recognize and process the virus, and present it to the CD4+ T cells, called dendritic cells (antigen presenting cells), within the mucosa and blood (Robbins & Cotran, 2010).

Blood contains T helper cells (Th ), which are a sub-group of Lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells. Th express the surface receptor glycoprotein CD4+, which the HIV virus uses as a receptor to bind to. When a virus, such as the HIV virus, enters and is present in the body, an antigen-presenting cell processes the virus and presents it to the CD4+ T cells, where binding will start to take place. The CD4+ are very essential for the immune system as they signal other cells that are also part of the immune system needed for the destruction of infectious agents.

Once the HIV virus infects and destroys the CD4+ T cells, other cells in the immune system will not be signaled. Therefore when other viruses such as the flu virus and infectious bacteria enter an HIV infected person’s body, there will not be enough CD4+ T cells available to target other immune system cells needed to get rid of a specific virus or bacterial infection. This is because the HIV virus has taken over the immune system, which results the person dying from getting flu, as there bodies immune system was not strong enough to get rid of the flu virus. The binding requirement that HIV has for CD4+ glycoprotein, explains the selectiveness of the virus itself for CD4+ T cells, and other CD4+ cells particularly monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells (Robbins & Cotran, 2010).

Binding of CD4 is not sufficient for infection, apart from the CD4+ receptor (on host cell) binding to the gp120 receptor on the HIV virus, as the virus has to bind to other parts of the host cell. As seen below, after the virus’s gp120 binds to CD4+ receptor it also binds to the CCR-5 a chemokine receptor on the host cell, which is next to the CD4+ on the surface of the host cell. The glycoprotein that was originally covered by the gp120 is now exposed and can allow for penetration in-order for membrane fusion between the virus and host cell. This allows for the viral genome to travel through the cytoplasm to enter the nucleus. Replication of more viral genome can now take place in the nucleus of the cell. After replication of more viral genome happens, the original viral genome leaves the nucleus where the synthesis of HIV proteins assembles in the cytoplasm of the cell. The core HIV structure then buds out of the host cell and steals part of the host cells envelope, and becomes the new cover for the HIV virus. A new mature HIV virion is created and ready to infect other cells like a domino affect (Robbins & Cotran, 2010). The host cell is now destroyed as it lost part of its envelope, and so is no longer functional.

Figure 1 visually shows the transmission process from entry into the cell to the production of more infectious HIV viruses. (Robbins & Cotran, 2010).

Eventually a vast loss of CD4+ T cells will result in Acquired Immunodeficiency (AIDS). AIDS is when the “master regulator” of the immune system CD4+ T cells, reaches under a certain cell count number. The low cell count number will determine if the person has AIDS. If their cell count number is low enough to indicate AIDS, then their immune system is so destroyed they could potentially, as said before, die from a simple infection that if healthy, the immune system would work accordingly to destroy the antigen.

We at the World Youth Alliance believe that everyone has dignity from conception until natural death. With that said, we all as human beings should recognize that people with HIV and AIDS are persons with worth. We should help respect, support, and protect people with HIV and AIDS by coming together to raise awareness every day. We should seek to help them live healthy lives. By educating people around the nation especially those in developing and underrepresented countries/areas who are in high risk of acquiring the HIV virus, we are creating a safe zone from the virus. People of today should recognize the social and medical burdens this virus has, and aim to create more programs for care and prevention, especially in places where it is most prevalent. Proper education about the virus will better foreign aid policies and enhance health care delivery.

WYA would like to call attention to the essential elements of a person-centered response. A person-centered response has as its focus the intrinsic dignity of the person and, as its aim, the goal of maximizing the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programs. Such a response is often most effective when it starts from the family, as it is there that basic care and support should originate. The fact that the disease manifests differently all over the world must be acknowledged so that the fight against HIV/AIDS may be tailored to each cultural context. Critical elements of an effective response involve the prevention of early sexual debut, as well as the reduction of multiple concurrent sexual partners. The effectiveness of these measures lies in the way in which they respond to the capacity of the person to make responsible choices. On this World AIDS Day, we invite you to join us!

Reference List:

Henry, William. 1987. Medicine: The Appalling Saga of Patient Zero. Time Magazine [Internet]. [cited 2011 Nov. 28] Available from:

Lodish, H; Berk, A et al. 1999. Molecular and Cellular Biology. 4th ed. New York: W.H Freeman and Company. Pg 191

Robins, S; Cotran. 2004. Pathologic Basis of Disease. 8th ed. Philidelphia: Saunders, inc.

Wolfe ND, Switzer WM et al. 2004. Naturally acquired simian retrovirus infections in central African hunters. Pub med [Internet]. [cited 2011 Nov. 28]; 363(9413):932-7. Available from: