HIV-2: How are we not all dead?

I’ve been reading tons of books on emerging viruses and watching TV shows like the Syfy channel’s new HelixNot only am I convinced humankind is on the brink of annihilation, I’m actually surprised we’re not all dead yet. My latest fright came from reading up on the origins of the name “HIV” for the virus that causes AIDS. I was trying to get the timeline correct before my blog entry on how badly the makers of The Dallas Buyers Club got some of the specifics wrong. What I found really blew my mind.

HIV-1 up close

HIV-1 up close

Did you know that there are two types of HIV? I thought that I was well-educated because I understood that the virus could mutate into slightly differing forms and that this is why creating a vaccine is challenging for all viruses — that’s why our flu vaccine each year targets several strains instead of there being a “universal” flu vaccine. I sort of had that right. But not really.

There is actually HIV-1, and that is the virus that has so tragically killed all of my gay brothers throughout the United States and Europe. HIV-1 comes in all types of lovely subtypes, wherein type “M” is the most common “major” grouping. It is composed of subtypes A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, and K. Sometimes, two of the subtypes meet up and have babies (called circulating recombinants) such as CRF A/B — the result of subtype A meeting up with subtype B in a cell and mixing up all of their genetic material to create something new and horrible and deadly. In addition to the major grouping “M”, there is the “outlier” group “O” and the “new” group “N”. Some scientists suspect that the types M, O, and N were created during specific, unrelated jumps of monkey viruses to humans.

All of these different subtypes can be tied to areas of the world where they are most common. For instance, subtype C is what’s infecting everyone in Africa. Subtype B is what wiped out San Francisco and NYC.

And it gets worse. You can get infected with one subtype of HIV and then get “coinfected” with another. Then they double team your body to make things even worse. Scientists didn’t always believe that this was possible. In fact, in the 80’s when the CDC was trying to get the gay men of the US to alter their sexual habits, they specifically said that things would be fine if all HIV+ men slept with other positive men, and all HIV- men slept with only negative men. They mistakenly lead the positive men to believe that they didn’t need to protect themselves anymore. I don’t think this issue is common knowledge even today.

And it gets even worse. This is all without mentioning HIV-2. HIV-2 causes a disease like AIDS, but it isn’t AIDS. It just seems like AIDS. I’m a little confused by that. I’m also a little confused by the fact that we don’t test for HIV-2. Supposedly, it is really rare, and that is why we don’t test for it. I’d love to hear someone explain that to me. Back in 1976, HIV-1 was pretty rare — but it sure would have saved a lot of lives had we been able to test for it…did test for it. Why is HIV-2 not a threat? Available treatments for HIV-1 related AIDS are not effective on HIV-2 related AIDS, so it seems like it would be a HUGE threat to all of us.

Why have I not heard more about this, and why aren’t we more frightened?

Thanks to for sharing this information.

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