HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. HIV is a lentivirus, and like all viruses of this type, it attacks the immune system. Lentiviruses are in turn part of a larger group of viruses known as retroviruses. The name 'lentivirus' literally means 'slow virus' because they take such a long time to produce any adverse effects in the body. They have been found in a number of different animals, including cats, sheep, horses and cattle. However, the most interesting lentivirus in terms of the investigation into the origins of HIV is the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) that affects monkeys, which is believed to be at least 32,000 years old. In Nigeria, an estimated 3.6 percent of the population are living with HIV and AIDS. Although HIV prevalence is much lower in Nigeria than in other African countries such as South Africa and Zambia, the size of Nigeria’s population (around 162.5 million) means that by the end of 2009, there were an estimated 3.3 million people living with HIV. Approximately 220,000 people died from AIDS in Nigeria in 2009. With AIDS claiming so many lives, Nigeria’s life expectancy has declined significantly. In 2010 the overall life expectancy was only 52 years.
The Origin of HIV/AIDS
The origin of AIDS and HIV has puzzled scientists ever since the illness first came to light in the early 1980s. For over twenty years it has been the subject of fierce debate and the cause of countless arguments, with everything from a promiscuous flight attendant to a suspect vaccine programme being blamed.
The first recognised cases of AIDS occurred in the USA in the early 1980s. A number of gay men in New York and California suddenly began to develop rare opportunistic infections and cancers that seemed stubbornly resistant to any treatment. At this time, AIDS did not yet have a name, but it quickly became obvious that all the men were suffering from a common syndrome. It is now generally accepted that HIV is a descendant of a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus because certain strains of SIVs bear a very close resemblance to HIV-1 and HIV-2, the two types of HIV. HIV-2 for example corresponds to SIVsm, a strain of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus found in the sooty mangabey (also known as the White-collared monkey), which is indigenous to western Africa. The more virulent, pandemic strain of HIV, namely HIV-1, was until recently more difficult to place. Until 1999, the closest counterpart that had been identified was SIVcpz, the SIV found in chimpanzees. However, this virus still had certain significant differences from HIV.
In February 1999 a group of researchers from the University of Alabama announced that they had found a type of SIVcpz that was almost identical to HIV-1. This particular strain was identified in a frozen sample taken from a captive member of the sub-group of chimpanzees known as Pan troglodytes troglodytes (P. t. troglodytes), which were once common in west-central Africa.
The researchers (led by Paul Sharp of Nottingham University and Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama) made the discovery during the course of a 10-year long study into the origins of the virus. They claimed that this sample proved that chimpanzees were the source of HIV-1, and that the virus had at some point crossed species from chimps to humans.
Their final findings were published two years later in Nature magazine. In this article, they concluded that wild chimps had been infected simultaneously with two different simian immunodeficiency viruses which had "viral sex" to form a third virus that could be passed on to other chimps and, more significantly, was capable of infecting humans and causing AIDS.
These two different viruses were traced back to a SIV that infected red-capped mangabeys and one found in greater spot-nosed monkeys. They believe that the hybridisation took place inside chimps that had become...