AIDS update: Rybicki tough on dissenters

09 February 2006
THERE is no debate – this was the crux of The Plague That Doesn't Exist: HIV, AIDS, Denialism and the Search for a Vaccine, a recent talk by Associate Professor Ed Rybicki of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in which he censured those who still contest that HIV causes AIDS.

Speaking at the South African Museum in Cape Town at the invitation of the Royal Society of South Africa, Rybicki made special mention of Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot & Mouth and Statistics: HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African.

This document, circulated by the African National Congress (ANC), claims that a number of prominent deaths, including that of 12-year-old AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson, were caused by anti-retrovirals.

The document also challenged the idea that AIDS is a single disease caused by a single agent, the Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. "This is denialism from the top of our government," said Rybicki.

"We know more about this virus than we have known about any other disease agent – we know what it does and how it does it."

Despite theories to the contrary, there is ample evidence that the disease, like many others, was originally transmitted from animals to humans. "It crossed the species line," said Rybicki.

HIV is a typical retrovirus of the genus Lentivirus, to which also belongs the Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Both HIV-1 and HIV-2 viruses first arose as infections transmitted from animals to humans, Rybicki indicated.

He also explained the life cycle of HIV – specifically how the viral DNA enters the host cell nucleus and combines with the latter's DNA. "It becomes part of the cell, and you can't get rid of it," he said.

In addition, Rybicki talked about the 26 conditions the World Health Organisation (WHO) usually associates with HIV. There may be more than the specified 26 in areas such as Africa, where there is an entirely different disease profile, he noted.

"The disease picture of what people will die of differs according to where you live." However, patients with AIDS are infected with HIV, regardless of where they live, he emphasised.

"If we take accepted definitions of AIDS, it's always associated with HIV."

Rybicki also drew comparisons between the use of anti-retrovirals and treatments for cancer. "Anti-retrovirals are toxic," he said. "But they don't cause AIDS."

In closing, he noted that a suitable vaccine would more than likely not be of the kind that would sterilise the body of the infectious agents. Instead, it would probably control a lower, detectable viral load in the body.

It may take long to produce such a vaccine, but there is plenty of research being done to find this cure, he said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel."

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