More AIDS, more questions Essay

Is AIDS a new plague descended on humankind, or, like Legionnaire’s disease, has the syndrome actually been around awhile, unrecognized? A report in the March 1 SCIENCE indicates AIDS, or something very like it, existed in Africa in 1972.

Researchers from France, Denmark and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., thawed blood samples collected in Uganda from apparently healthy individuals in 1972 and 1973 as a control group in a cancer study. The scientists looked for the presence of antibodies to HTLV-III, a putative cause of AIDS, and found it in 50 to 75 samples checked, suggesting, they say, “that the virus detected may have been a predecessor of HTLV-III or HTLV-III itself but existing in a population acclimated to its presence.”

Whether the virus that elicited the antibodies is actually HTLV-III can’t be determined for certain because there isn’t enough blood left, and it hadn’t been stored under ideal conditions for virus survival, says W. Carl Saxinger, one of the NIH researchers. And because of the difficulty of follow-up in Uganda, the current health status of the donors is unknown.

What remains to be determined, says Saxinger, is how the African viral infection relates to the current U.S. epidemic. “Is it the same virus transported to a more susceptible population?” he asks. “If it’s not the same virus, has it progressed into a more virulent form, or is it an unknown variant whose properties we don’t know? …. If it [AIDS itself] was there [in Uganda], it could be it just wasn’t noticed. If it wasn’t there we’re left with explaining how and in what way the people were infected that they didn’t get the disease.”

Whatever was there didn’t spread very quickly. A report from British researchers in the Feb. 16 LANCET describes finding AIDS antibodies in 20 percent of 51 apparently healthy people in Uganda but in only 2 percent of 158 people in nearby Zambia.

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