The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

HIV: The Last 30 Years

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Hello all, Dave here. Thirty years ago today, the Los Angeles Center for Disease Control released a report about 5 young men, ranging in age from 29 to 36, all homosexual, all being treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, at 3 different hospitals. At the time of the report, 3 of the men had died. All were previously healthy and the only connection seemed to be that they were all homosexual. The CDC didn’t know it at the time, but that report would be the world’s introduction to the most infamous, most deadly infection in the history of epidemiology since the Bubonic Plague of mid-14th century Europe, which killed an estimated 1/3 of the population.

The Black Death has killed roughly 100 million people; fortunately, with modern medicine and the scientific method, along with the fact that HIV is spread via body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate, or breast milk), rather than through flea bites, like Bubonic Plague, fewer people have been infected. People tried all sorts of things to ward off the plague, including prayer, refraining from bathing (which attracted fleas and did absolutely no good) to smoking “plague pipes” (which actually did help keep the fleas away, though nobody at the time can be said to have made the connection deliberately). Aside from flea bites, the plague was further spread by direct contact between humans, even just by breathing on someone – especially problematic, considering coughing is a symptom. Untreated, bubonic plague can kill you in about four days. If caught early, a few dollars’ worth of the modern antibiotic Streptomycin is sufficient to treat bubonic plague, which still infects roughly 3,000 people per year. Science: It works, bitches.

The quick mortality of plague actually helped keep it from spreading as quickly as it could have, especially considering that inter-city travel at the time was technologically limited to a few miles per hour. Because someone can be infected with HIV and not know it – in fact it takes several weeks after infection for the antibodies appear even in modern tests (the so-called “window period”). Newer tests can actually screen for the the presence of the virus itself in the bloodstream, rather than waiting for antibodies to develop, but these are more expensive and not as widely-available. The biggest problem, though, is that both versions of the test required patients to volunteer for testing, and it’s estimated that 20% of those infected with HIV in the United States do not know they are infected because they have never been tested. With modern air travel capable of taking people from one continent to another in less than a day and for prices within reach of most anyone, you can imagine what a problem this is.

A recent Economist cover article puts the sad reality of this disease in black & white: 25 million dead, a further 34 million infected. In some parts of Africa, as many as 1 in 4 (!) have HIV. But The Economist makes the claim that eradicating AIDS is within our reach during this century, if we decide to put our resources into the effort. A study published last month, which produced results so promising that the study was ended 4 YEARS early so that its method could be put into immediate effect worldwide, suggests that treating HIV patients with anti-AIDS drugs (before they even develop AIDS) makes them “strikingly less infectious.” Again, they key is identifying who has HIV so they can begin treatment – there is no vaccine, there is no cure, and 1 in 5 affected persons do not know they have it.

As a humanist, I place a high value on human life and welfare. I think I am not alone in this, whether you are religious or not. Today’s post, more than anything, is a reminder to practice safe sex. Abstinence-only education is not good enough. Get tested for HIV once every year. Pick a day, for example your birthday, so you don’t forget. I know it’s not very sexy to think about, but before having sex with a new partner, GET TESTED. If you’ve never been tested, GET TESTED. Remember, every time you sleep with someone, you are, in effect, sleeping with every person that person has ever slept with, too. A 2007 Associated Press report indicates that the median number of lifetime sexual partners a man in the United States has had is 7; a woman, 4. About a third of US men have had 15 or more sexual partners; about 1 in 10 women has had 15 or more partners. If you have ever had a one-night stand or an affair, get tested. I know this isn’t fun stuff to think about, folks, but it’s important that we not be shy about this or consider the subject taboo if we want to have a chance of eradicating HIV in our lifetime. Get tested. Get tested. Get tested. Together, we can wipe AIDS off the face of the planet.

Find a testing site near you.

Staying HIV negative from the CDC.

HIV Transmission Q&A

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

– Dave

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, and posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is


About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia

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This entry was posted on June 5, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, In The News, Web Links & Videos.
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