North America's Role in Spreading HIV in the Western World

“The story of HIV up to its arrival in the US is already known. What happened after that, however, has been unclear. We wanted to see how HIV spread in the Western world,” co-lead author Gkikas Magiorkinis, MD, Msc, PhD, Path, of the University of Oxford said in a news release.

“The story of HIV up to its arrival in the US is already known. What happened after that, however, has been unclear. We wanted to see how HIV spread in the Western world,” co-lead author Gkikas Magiorkinis, MD, Msc, PhD, Path, of the University of Oxford said in a news release.

The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) was already in full swing when researchers discovered it in the early 1980s. The Western World was dominated by subtype B infections for at least 30 years due to the Africa to Haiti to United States route. But as Magiorkinis said, it’s not fully understood what happened after that.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Molecular Epidemiology and Evolutionary Genetics of infectious Diseases (MEEGID), researchers evaluated nearly 9,000 genomes of globally representative HIV-1 subtype B strains. The goal was to map the spread of the infection over the past 50 years.

The analysis revealed that the HIV subtype traveled from the US to Western Europe on different occasions. In fact, the data showed that North America was spreading HIV-1 more than it was coming in, Magiorkinis said. The virus, however, didn’t really touch Central and Eastern Europe for most of the early part of the epidemic. It’s believed that this is due to political conflict that was taking place at the time. But this eventually changed when geopolitical events, like the fall of the Iron Curtain, took place and caused migration throughout Europe.

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“These distinct strains in Eastern and Western Europe were able to connect again in the 1990s once movement became less curtailed,” explained co-lead author Dimitrios Paraskevis, PhD, from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece.

Another piece of the puzzle discovered from this study showed that the UK, France, and Switzerland exchanged viral isolates with non-European countries than with European ones. This lead the team to believe the geopolitical connection even more, as the pattern mirrors events in the post-World War II era.

“Viral dynamics are influenced by host ecology, and human ecology is defined by geopolitics,” continued Magiorkinis, from the Department of Zoology. “It is not surprising that a country’s influence is strongly linked to its role in spreading the virus — HIV simply followed the natural cultural flows of the second half of the 20th century, moving from North America to Europe.”

Therefore, political and socioeconomic factors have influenced the HIV epidemic and the route of infection goes along with documented human activities.

“This study shows how important it is the policies to prevent the spread of infections are set up on a global scale, and that we understand how — much like in economics – an epidemic in an influential country is likely to have an effect in almost every other part of the world,” Paraskevis concluded.

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