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HIV: The Virus that Made the World Weep


In the course of Superbugs, Science, and Society, we’ll encounter many health threats that are dark clouds on the horizon, not current thunderstorms. Avian flu, anthrax – these occupy the realm of fear, not public health reality. In other cases, such as malaria, diseases exert a much heavier burden on the developing world than America. However, none of these is

the case with HIV and the disease it causes: AIDS. Even though the AIDS epidemic in Africa may have been ignored by Western policy makers, its impact in the US is unmistakable. From the earliest hints of this new killer in the 1980s, to its undeniable influence on modern sex education and public health, AIDS has had a profound effect on US culture. It is a health crisis shared across the globe, uniting America with Sub-Saharan Africa and other struggling regions.

Electron micrograph of HIV virions on the surface of an immune cell.
Electron micrograph of HIV virions on the surface of an immune cell.


A Word on Layout

Our discussion of HIV/AIDS, like the other courses in this unit, follows a general format. We begin by describing the history of the disease, following the pathogen’s course through human history. Having illustrated this larger-scale picture, we narrow down to focus on the molecular biology of the disease, its transmission, and it treatment. Finally, in cases such as AIDS where public health measures are as much a part of treatment as the medicine itself, we survey current initiatives – and ethical quandaries that may arise from them.