Select Page



by William H. Benson

July 9, 2009

     I first heard about it on the radio in perhaps 1981. Paul Harvey reported that a number of young men in California were suffering from a variety of health problems with strange-sounding names: Kaposi’s sarcoma, candidiasis, pneuomocystis, toxoplasmosis, leukoencephalopathy, and mycobacterium. At the time, this strange debilitating disease did not have a name or a diagnosis, but eventually, someone tagged it AIDS.

     Researchers went to work and discovered that those stricken with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome may demonstrate different “opportunistic infections,” but they all shared a common trait—they were low on the CD4 cells, below a level of 200 when a normal CD4 count is between 600 and 1000. Dr. Michael Gottleib of the University of California said in early 1981 that, “They were virtually devoid of T-helper cells.” Their immune system had been profoundly compromised and was deficient.

     The medical detectives discovered that the AIDS victims seemed to belong to one of four groups—the so-called Four H Club: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin-users, and Haitians. In those early years, the members of this club suffered most unfairly from severe discrimination and stigmatization within the emotionally-charged culture of blame and prejudice that surrounded all discussions of AIDS.

     Evidence pointed the medical detectives toward a virus as the culprit behind AIDS, and it was given the name HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, specifically “HIV-1, group M, subtype B,” the most common strain found in the U.S.

     But then it was discovered that those outside those four social groups were also infected with HIV—those who had received blood transfusions between 1981 and 1986 before laboratories tested for HIV. Donors of blood were often people desperate for money, such as intravenous drug users who perhaps shared contaminated needles, and their tainted blood entered into the blood bank supply and then was sent worldwide.

     Most of those people who received infected blood donations during surgery went on to become HIV positive themselves. Two of those so unlucky included Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, and Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion. Ashe was the first African-American to compete in the international sport of tennis at the highest level of the game. Asimov died on April 6, 1992, and Ashe on February 6, 1993.

     But what about the Haitians? Why did AIDS show up in Haiti? Researchers are now confident, “99.7% certain,” that HIV came to the U.S. by way of Haiti, and that it had arrived on the Caribbean island from Haitians who had worked in the Congo in Africa.

     The “Hunter Theory,” subscribes to the idea that in Africa, in south Cameroon, hunters had shot chimpanzees that carried the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Hunters with cuts, scrapes, and wounds on their hands and arms had contacted the chimp’s blood, and SIV had adapted itself within its new host, human beings, as HIV. The dots connected from the U.S. back to African chimpanzees by way of Haiti.

     The statistics are sobering. An estimated 33 million people living today are infected, 22 million of those live in sub-Saharan Africa, and approximately 25% of those infected are unaware that they are, because they have never been tested. Since 1981, more than 25 million people have died from AIDS.

     All this human suffering and devastation has originated from strands of DNA and RNA packaged within a membrane studded with protein—a virus. War, famine, and pestilence have harassed human progress for centuries, and pestilence seems the worst.

      Treatment for those infected has evolved into a combination of antiretroviral drugs that only prolong the lives of those infected, for there is no cure. Prevention has included stern warnings about a more watchful, guarded, and safer lifestyle.

     Ultimately, what humans need is a vaccine, and so on May 18, 1997 President Bill Clinton challenged medical researchers to develop an HIV vaccine, the best hope for ending AIDS. A dozen years later and the goal remains unfulfilled, even though the need is urgent: AIDS is the world’s number 4 killer, but is number 1 in sub-Saharan Africa.


     July 10th would have been Arthur Ashe’s 66th birthday, and if given a chance, he, I am sure, would have liked to watch Serena Williams beat her sister Venus, in the women’s finals match last Saturday at Wimbledon, where he won the men’s finals in 1975.