The Mysterious Case Of Robert R And The Pieces To The AIDS Puzzle
By Little Baby Ginn
The October 29th Chicago Tribune came out with the story of how genetic analysis of 25 yr old blood samples showed the most predominant strain of AIDS first emerged in Haiti in the 1960’s and arrived in the United States a few years later, most likely 1969.
Study: HIV in U.S. decade earlier than was thought
By Jia-Rui Chong | Tribune Newspapers
10:56 PM CDT, October 29, 2007
A genetic analysis of 25-year-old blood samples has outlined a new map of the AIDS virus' journey out of Africa, showing that today's most widespread subtype first emerged in Haiti in the 1960s and arrived in the United States a few years later.
The fact that the new HIV study proved AIDS was here in the United States in 1969 wasn’t news to the physicians whose patient’s symptoms and subsequent death were so baffling that they had the 15 year old’s tissues stored in the hopes that some day their questions would get answered.
When a fifteen-year-old African American boy appeared at the Washington University clinic in St. Louis in 1969 with an assortment of symptoms such as swollen lymph glands, Chlamydia, weight loss, and exhaustion the treating physicians were baffled as to what it was that the boy suffered from. He was treated with anti-biotics for the Chlamydia infection but succumbed after a bout of bronchial pneumonia. The autopsy revealed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a skin cancer. A Chlamydia specialist at Washington University, Dr. Memory Elvin-Lewis, was “fascinated” by Robert R’s illness and was the one who requested that tissues from Robert R’s body be frozen for later examination.
Robert R. claimed he had never traveled outside of St. Louis. When questioned the boy kept mum about his private life. His symptoms were so bewildering that it wasn’t until the early 1980’s, after a new disease referred to as “gay cancer” emerged in 1981. It had claimed 121 deaths in the U.S. The symptoms of this new “disease” were the same as those that Robert R had suffered. The pieces of the puzzle of what might have killed the boy started to fall into place. In 1984 the disease became officially known as AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The doctors who treated Robert R believed that the 15 year old most likely had AIDS but it wasn’t proven until 1984 when his tissues tested positive for HIV. Fifteen years after his death Robert R became officially known as the first confirmed case of HIV/AIDS in the United States. He died on May 16, 1969, at the age of fifteen.
Just how did a kid who grew up in St. Louis and never traveled outside the city contract AIDS? He told doctors that he had had symptoms since late 1966 when he was 12. He did admit to having sexual relations but refused to elaborate. He told doctors he had never had a blood transfusion. Since the disease is sexually transmitted doctors believe he was infected by someone already in the U.S. before Robert R showed symptoms in 1966.
In 1987 molecular biologists at Tulane University in New Orleans examined Robert R’s
tissues for signs of AIDS and found that he did, indeed, have AIDS. One of the pieces still missing from the puzzle, how did Robert R contract the disease?
The new genetic analysis published in the Chicago Tribune found that the AIDS subtype B, the most prevalent form outside Africa emerged from Haiti in the 1960’s.
Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and senior author of the study, analyzed five blood samples collected in 1982 and 1983 from Haitian AIDS patients in Miami. The samples had been stored in a freezer by the CDC.
Statistically, the researchers found a 99.7 percent certainty that HIV subtype B originated in Haiti, Worobey said.
Worobey surmised the virus was brought to Haiti by workers who had gone to Zaire after it became independent in 1960. The virus appears to have been carried to the U.S. by Haitian immigrants between 1966 and 1972. Researchers have debated for years whether the U.S. epidemic came directly from Africa or through Haiti.
From 1981 through the end of 2004, more than 20 million people (worldwide) have died of AIDS.
It remains to be seen how this latest news on AIDS will be treated by the media and by activists. Any information which doesn't fit a tighly-controlled template is immediately shouted down or discounted, as Biologist Peter Dueserg has discovered. His research on AIDS and a link to illegal drug use has caused vehement reaction in some circles.
Hopefully someone has tested or plans to test Robert R’s tissues to verify whether the teen was infected with the Subtype B virus. Then perhaps, another piece of the AIDS puzzle will fall into place.
UPDATE: Reuters gets in on this story.
--notes by Mondoreb
New York Times
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