The Cell that Started a Pandemic

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The Cell that Started a Pandemic

This Radiolab podcast talks about how the HIV/AIDS epidemic started: the ultimate patient zero story, a very recent event that still hurts and still bleeds.

Carl Zimmer the guest speaker of this broadcast states that in 1981 doctors described for the first time a new disease, a new syndrome which affected mostly homosexual men. The young men in Los Angeles were dying and the number of cases was growing faster and faster. The number of deaths was increasing from eighty to six hundred and twenty five in just the first few months. After the first few cases in LA, AIDS was declared to be one of the deadliest pandemics the world had ever seen after the plague in the Middle Ages.

Another guest speaker and guide in this podcast is David Quammen. He talks about how the epidemiologists were trying to figure out what this new disease was and how they were thinking that maybe it was a sexually transmitted disease. So, the CDC launched the study of a group of about thirty patients came from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco to see who had had sexual contact with who. They led as a series of interviews: “Please name all the people that you have had sex with”. After these surveys the CDC eventually released the results in the form of a diagram, like a network drive with circles representing patients and lines representing sexual contact. In each patient, each circle was numbered so that they could tell who is who. They noticed: New York seven, Los Angeles twelve etc… and soon they noticed a common denominator in this huge spider web of connections. One little circle, numbered zero: PATIENT ZERO. That was the first time they ever used the term patient zero.

In 1988, a reporter named Randy Schultz ...

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...cused of being patient zero and the one who purposely and knowingly infected as many as 250 men a year on both sides of the Atlantic was nothing but one of the many wrong hypotheses made in this process of finding the origin of the HIV/AIDS virus. The fact that he had single handedly started the epidemic, today is largely discredited by most scientists. With time computer models estimated that the first human infection occurred around 1930, give or take 20 years. The earliest known infection of an identified human dates back to 1959 which was found in a plasma sample taken from an adult male living in the Belgian Congo. Many assumptions and hypotheses were made and a human eating a chimp seems to be the likeliest form the infection occurred.

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