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AIDS Watch:When Animals Attack!

New viruses require humans with HIV to take new safeguards.

by Kelly A McCann

Kelly McCann

Swine flu, more properly called the H1N1 virus, is a hot topic these days. It is a new, never-before-seen-in-humans strain of the influenza A virus, subtype H1N1. This new “bug” is actually a novel combination of four strains of flu, two of which are endemic in pigs, one is prevalent in birds, and the last is common in humans. So you can see calling it “swine flu” is not quite accurate, but it rolls off the tongue easier than its official name.

The H1N1 virus was first identified in humans in the United States and Mexico in April of this year, but it quickly spread around the globe. On June 11, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared H1N1 influenza a Phase 6 (the highest) pandemic, the first time an illness had been elevated to that level since the Hong Kong flu outbreak of 1968.

Locally, last spring we got a small taste of the effect this viral illness can have on a community. We saw multiple school closings in response to the flu, resulting in hundreds of Houston children having to miss vital classroom instruction days. In addition, many people altered travel plans and limited their attendance at crowded public events or social engagements. As we approach the start of another flu season, we should ready ourselves for the likelihood of similar restrictions as well as other limitations which may have an even more significant impact on our daily lives.

While no vaccine is currently available for H1N1, the CDC reports that 120 million doses of swine flu vaccine will be ready for Americans in late October. The problem is that 160 million of our citizens have been identified as priority recipients. The priority list includes pregnant women, caregivers of small children, persons six months to 24 years of age (because swine flu has been hitting hardest among those age groups), and adults over the age of 24 who have a chronic illness, like say, HIV/AIDS.

Federal medical officials are recommending that persons with HIV get a seasonal flu shot and a swine flu vaccine when they become available. Such a double-barreled approach will hopefully keep healthy those with compromised immune systems who are thus more susceptible to H1N1. So if you are infected with HIV, please consult your doctor right away and discuss getting yourself immunized against this year’s potentially serious influenza.

Now, onto another new disease-y topic: the discovery and documentation of the first human infected with a new strain of HIV that comes from gorillas. Most Americans living with HIV are infected with a strain of the virus that originated in chimps. The conventional wisdom is that Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), which infects chimps, mutated into a form that could infect humans sometime between 1884 and 1924. It is believed the first transmission occurred as a result of a person eating bush-meat (insert your own lesbian joke here), as chimp, monkey, and gorilla flesh are called in Africa.

The human in question is a 62-year-old woman from Cameroon who is currently living in Paris. Doctors have determined her HIV closely resembles SIVgor, a form of SIV recently discovered in wild gorillas that inhabit western Africa. The infected woman claims she had no contact with apes, or their meat, so scientists do not believe this is a case of direct gorilla-to-human transmission. Rather, researchers have concluded she most likely contracted the virus via sexual transmission from another infected human.

The origins of SIVgor are not yet known. It could be that it is a form of SIV that developed independently of the strain that infects chimps, or it could be that chimp SIV was transmitted to both gorillas and humans and resulting mutations occurred.

Regardless of the origin of this new strain, there is good news. For starters, the infected woman is not symptomatic, nor does she show any signs of an impaired immune system despite being HIV-positive for more than five years. More good news is that scientists believe this new strain of HIV replicates in much the same way as the more common strain of HIV. Thus, they are hopeful the new strain will be similarly susceptible to current antiretroviral therapies.

Both swine flu and gorilla HIV are illustrations of how viral mutation happens, how viruses may jump from one species to another, and how such new strains can impact humans. Moreover, these two illnesses should serve to remind us of why it is so important to track infectious diseases and be watchful for emerging variants. Our health and our future may depend upon it.

Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. To learn more about swine flu symptoms, prevention, and treatment recommendations for persons living with HIV/AIDS, please visit the CDC’s website at or contact AFH at 713/623-6796.

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