Continued from May 17
The original transmission of AIDS had nothing to do with sex: Some people in West Africa eat “bushmeat,” or monkey meat. The molecular testing is now so precise that scientists have dated the common ancestor of all of today’s HIV infections to sometime between 1873 and 1933. That same type of testing suggests the virus first arrived in the United States in the 1960s. Robert Rayford may not have been the first to die; just the first to be verified. It’s still unclear how he contracted the virus. There’s some belief that he had been a child prostitute but even that doesn’t explain how the virus wound up in the middle of North America. Another mystery: In the early 1970s, a baby born in New Jersey to a 16-year-old intravenous drug user also showed symptoms that tests years later showed to be HIV.
It’s clear now that HIV had been around for a long time before it exploded into an epidemic that first appeared in 1979 and then raged through the early 1980s before its cause was finally found.
The initial spread of the disease also wasn’t a gay flight attendant from Canada; it was straight European sailors. We now know that sailors who frequented African ports — and female prostitutes — brought it back to Europe. The first documented AIDS case in Europe involved a Norwegian sailor and truck driver who had frequented female prostitutes in Cameroon in the early 1960s and then female European prostitutes through the 1970s. If you want to blame a single Patient Zero, blame the man usually given the code name “Arvid Noe.” He died in 1976; so did his wife and infant daughter and nobody at the time knew why.
The first AIDS death in Virginia was in Roanoke. On May 8, 1983, a 30-year-old man from Tazewell County passed away at Roanoke Memorial Hospital. At the time AIDS was so new — at least in the public mind — that there were just seven reported cases of the infection in Virginia. The Tazewell man became the eighth —and the first to die.
AIDS changed how we go about go about handling blood — we didn’t use to see first responders with rubber gloves — and popularized the concept of “safe sex.”
The outbreak peaked in the U.S. in 1995 and in the world in 2005. Deaths have declined every year since but the virus certainly hasn’t gone away. The number of new HIV cases in Virginia has trended slightly downward — from 975 in 2013 to 831 last year. That’s still a little more than two new cases each day. Of those, 11 last year were in Roanoke. Health statistics estimate more than 400 people in Roanoke carry the disease; more than 1,000 apiece in Richmond and Petersburg, which has the state’s highest concentrations of cases. New drugs don’t make HIV the automatic death sentence it once was, but it still can be deadly
We mark World AIDS Day every Dec. 1, but in some ways it’s every day.