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J Med Primatol. 2004 Oct;33(5-6):220-6.

AIDS as a zoonosis? Confusion over the origin of the virus and the origin of the epidemics.

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1
Tulane National Primate Research Center, Covington, LA, USA. pmarxj@tulane.edu

Abstract

Based on findings demonstrating the simian ancestry of HIV, AIDS has been reported to be a zoonosis. However, this theory has never been proved and must seriously be questioned. Several arguments show that HIV-AIDS is not a zoonosis. (i) If AIDS were a zoonosis, there must be evidence of AIDS being directly acquired from an animal species, as is rabies, a disease that is directly acquired from animals. (ii) Despite long-term and frequent human exposure to SIV-infected monkeys in Africa, only 11 cross-species transmission events are known, and only four of these have resulted in significant human-to-human transmission, generating HIV-1 groups M and O and HIV-2 groups A and B. The closest relatives of SIVcpz (HIV-1 group N) and of SIVsm (HIV-2 groups C-H) are extremely rare, with only six HIV-1 group N-infected patients and only single individuals known to be infected by HIV-2 groups C-H. SIV, while capable of cross-species transmission, is thus poorly adapted for disease and epidemic spread. If AIDS were a zoonosis that is capable of significant human-to-human spread, there would be a plethora of founder subtypes and groups. (iii) Human exposure to SIV is thousands of years old, but AIDS emerged only in the 20th century. If AIDS were a zoonosis that spread into the human population, it would have spread to the West during slave trade. (iv) Experimental transmission of SIVs to different species of monkeys is often well controlled by the new host, showing that the virus and not the disease is transmitted. Therefore, we conclude that cross-species transmission of SIV does not in itself constitute the basis for a zoonosis. Transmission per se is not the major requirement for the generation of the AIDS epidemic. All HIVs do derive from simian species, but AIDS does not qualify as a zoonosis and this explanation cannot in itself account for the origin of AIDS epidemic. It is important to distinguish AIDS from true zoonoses (e.g. rabies) because research is needed to understand the processes by which animal viruses cause sustained human-to-human transmission, epidemics and even pandemics. Much is known about emerging viruses, but almost nothing is known about emerging viral diseases.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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