I am writing on this topic in its plural form of viruses and not the singular virus. This is to acknowledge that there have been many viruses in my life, and I expect maybe a few more before all is said and done. I have yet to contract the current rage, COVID-19, but who knows how long my luck at avoiding that one will last.
My first memory of encountering a viral infection was I believe in the first grade which would have been back in about 1956 and involved chickenpox. I remember the nuns made all kids returning from having had the pox to sit in a row of chairs outside the classroom and having our faces and arms at least inspected. I think the inspection was to make sure that our pox marks had all scabbed over or already scarred, which I assume was considered to be a marker that we were no longer infectious. This would not have been the soundest attempt at infection control. Chickenpox parties in those days with kids being intentionally infected was really thought to be a good idea. That bit of stupid that went around apparently comes around again with some anti-vaxers in California again throwing “chickenpox parties” for their young kids despite a very effective vaccine being available.
The official name for the chickenpox virus is varicella-zoster. This is one of the several viruses that once infected with it is along for the ride. It can come back and cause problems later in life as shingles. I have had two bouts of relatively mild shingles in the past and more recently I have received the shingles vaccine – which I highly recommend.
I won’t bore you all with the many other viruses I have encountered several of which I am still probably carting around but will skip to the big one and that would be HIV. I tested positive for HIV as soon as the antibody test came along in 1985 but am fairly sure I was infected in late 1980 or early 1981. I am therefore approaching 40 years with that little virus. Though it is relatively easy to suppress these days with numerous antivirals it remains sequestered in various hiding places throughout the body and only a few weeks off antivirals and it will come roaring back. It is not prayer, clean living, a great diet, or a dedicated exercise program that has kept HIV at bay for me but rather most likely just dumb luck.
Comparisons between HIV and COVID-19 are really not easy to make from a virological point but the differences in societal and even medical system response are even more striking.
The national response, and even the world-wide effort, to address COVID have been truly stunning with us looking at multiple good vaccine candidates less than a year into the epidemic. In fairness, this is related somewhat by the major advances in science in the past forty years and there are several intrinsic differences with HIV that make a vaccine extremely difficult to come up with.
And of course, HIV quickly, though incorrectly, become associated almost exclusively with gay men, and much less sympathy or urgency was generated. Ronald Reagan didn’t even say the acronym AIDS in public until at least 6 years into his presidency. Something that comes along and seems to preferentially kill grandma is going to elicit much more of an urgent response and of course, COVID is much, much more contagious than HIV. COVID only takes a few minutes of being in the wrong room without a mask and bingo you’ve got it, no skin-to-skin contact needed. Breathing will do just fine as mode of transmission.
I am left to wonder though if only HIV had been addressed with the same urgency as COVID might many of the men in my life who died in the 1980s and 1990 still be here today. There would probably still be no vaccine but the pharmaceuticals that control it well might very well have been developed sooner.
I was fond of thinking in the 1980s that we humans are really nothing more than hosts for the many viruses circulating about the planet including HIV. Viruses being non-living entities that need a host to survive. This was clearly a very unsophisticated view of viruses and the humans they infect. I guess I don’t mind playing host, but I would ask them to not kill me, please.