STD Awareness: The HIV Epidemic at Home

In the United States, we understand HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — using a common narrative, one that gives us the impression that its deadliest chapters belong in decades past or distant places. It goes like this:

The disease emerged in the 1980s, cutting down young gay men in their primes and blindsiding scientists as they scrambled to unravel the virus’ mysteries. While AIDS initially whipped up mass hysteria among the general public, LGBTQ folks demanded equality, pushing to find treatments and a cure. AIDS activism and scientific research eventually led to the development of antiretroviral drugs, which tamed the plague by turning a death sentence into a chronic disease. Now, with the right medication, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives. The hysteria has died down, as most people realize viral transmission is preventable, and the infection is manageable.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: Just as it was in the 1980s, AIDS is still thought of as a disease of the “other.” Back then, it was a disease of gay men, a population cruelly marginalized by the general public. Today, it’s thought of as a disease of sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV prevalence is highest.

That narrative, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. Right here in our own backyards, the HIV epidemic continues to spread in the face of chilling indifference from those not affected. African-American MSM — men who have sex with men, who may or may not self-identify as gay or bisexual — have an HIV prevalence that exceeds that of any country in the world. In Swaziland, for example, 27 percent of adults are living with HIV/AIDS, but if current transmission rates hold steady, half of African-American MSM are projected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Instead of taking this projection as a wake-up call to invest in lifesaving health policies, however, state and federal responses are poised to let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrary to racist and homophobic stereotypes, data show that black MSM aren’t more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, use drugs and alcohol, or withhold their HIV status from partners. So why are they burdened with higher HIV rates? The answer lies beyond mere behavior, embedded in policies and practices that disproportionately harm people based on race, sexuality, and geography. Continue reading

How Does HIV Cause AIDS?

diagram of a human immunodeficiency virus

Last week, we gave a general background of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS by destroying the immune system. But how is HIV able to disable our immune systems so effectively, anyway? The answer lies in its structure.

HIV, just like any other virus, is made up of a tiny capsule with a small piece of genetic code inside. While most viruses we’re familiar with store their genes on a molecule called DNA, HIV contains two pieces of RNA, which is another type of gene-storing molecule. The HIV capsules also contain an enzyme called transcriptase, which “translates” the RNA into a strand of DNA that our cells can read. Our cells are then tricked into reading this DNA and producing more copies of the virus — which are then released from the host cell, at which point they are free to infect other cells. In this manner, an HIV infection slowly grows.

HIV targets our immune systems, the very mechanism that evolved to keep us safe from pathogens.

When a virus is introduced into a host’s body, immune cells pick it up and carry it to the lymphoid organs — which are a sort of meeting place for other types of immune cells, including CD4+ T helper cells (also called helper T cells). Helper T cells enlist the help of other immune cells, called killer T cells, which destroy cells infected with viruses. Helper T cells also activate the production of antibodies, molecules that are specialized to attach to a specific pathogen so that it can be destroyed. Normally, this is where the virus meets its end. Unfortunately, HIV is different from run-of-the-mill viruses in that it is specialized to invade helper T cells. Now, instead of coordinating an attack against HIV, the helper T cells have been hijacked — converted into factories for the production of yet more HIV. Continue reading