It's amazing, sometimes, how circumstances can just come together to screw humanity.
Diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and other protozoans, worms, flukes, etc. have plagued humanity since the beginning of our history, since before our history. They do for all species, because being a parasite, something that lives at the expense of another, is an incredibly easy and evolutionarily successful way to live.
The problem is evolution. Humanity had been making great strides towards controlling our parasitical invaders through public sanitation and hospitals, when, in 1928, penicillin was discovered, unleashing a whole new avenue of treatment, antibiotics to kill bacteria and other invaders. (The only problem: viruses. Antibiotics don't do shit to viruses. Antibiotics kill things, and viruses aren't alive.)
Since then, we've been racing the Red Queen, running as fast as we can to stay in the same place.
We'd invent a new drug, and through mismanagement, overuse, or just evolutionary ingenuity, the bacteria would build resistance, and we'd be back to the drawing board once more.
And now, especially, drug companies aren't even researching antibiotics. The real money lies in blood pressure medication, cholesterol reducers, (and HIV drugs), drugs that people take constantly for many years. Effective antibiotics have to use a few pills, a few days, then the infection clears up.
There's no money in that.
The only problem is, this short-term strategy is heading for disaster, coupled with the most deadly single parasite in humanity today: HIV.
HIV, it is theorized, arose in Central Africa in the early 20th century, perhaps about 1910. We know now that hunters that hunt for monkeys commonly contract a disease known as SIV, or the Simian equivalent of Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
SIV, however, is a weak virus, and the immune system will crush it within weeks.
It took a series of social changes in Central Africa, through colonialism, that opened the beginning of sexual promiscuity and prostitution in societies that had previously never known such things.
It's thought that once a human contracts SIV, it must get transmitted to at least 3 different people, each of them before the immune system crushes it, before it will finally evolve into HIV.
This happened, it is thought, 3 separate times in Central Africa, in the early 20th century, and HIV was born.
The earliest case that we know of being certainly HIV was a case in the Congo in 1959. Soon after, it spread to the United States, mostly through the work of a single unknown individual from Haiti, who may have contracted it in Africa and seeded it in the US gay communities as early as 1966.
The disease was never discovered for what it was until 1981, when the CDC noticed a small cluster of gay men and injection drug users were all of a sudden dying of rare forms of pneumonia and skin cancer, that people with healthy immune systems should have been able to combat.
Soon, in 1983, the virus was discovered and named HIV (after the term "gay-related disease" was found to be misleading, as it doesn't only affect gays).
Since then, the pharmaceutical industry has thrown their whole considerable weight against the tiny virus, and great strides have been made.
As of now, though we still can't kill viruses, that's still true, through a variety of complex drug cocktails, we can inhibit the reproduction of the virus, and HIV has been reduced to a nearly chronic, manageable condition.
For now. Drug resistant strains have been appearing, and HIV is an RNA virus, perhaps the fastest evolving type of genetic info ever devised. It's a formidable enemy we're fighting.
But then again, it's a very odd enemy we're fighting:
Contrary to popular opinion, parasites have no interest in killing their hosts, any parasite that kills their host is a failure, they've killed their food source.
That's why the most successful parasite in human history, tuberculosis, which today infects more than 2 billion people, a third of the global population, most of the time stays without symptoms for a person's entire natural life.
Only rarely, and usually with the help of HIV, does tuberculosis fuck up in the worst possible way and kill its host. Most of the time, you never even know you have it.
Another misconception about HIV is: if you have unprotected sex with an HIV-infected person, you will almost certainly get the virus.
Frankly, this might be one of the biggest breaks humanity has ever had: HIV is a fragile virus, it doesn't spread easily.
It dies after just hours outside its host, and is easily killed by bleach and other disinfectants.
It can't be spread by air, water, common surfaces, saliva, or anything but shared body fluids.
And even then, it doesn't catch easily.
The very highest risk type of sex, unprotected anal sex, carries, on average, a risk of about 3% transmission per act.
With vaginal sex, it's much much lower, down to about .1%, and with oral, even much much lower than that, down to about .001%.
So why then is HIV such a successful virus?
1. It's a virus. It can't be cured. STD's like chlamydia and gonorrhea are more common and easier spread, but they can be killed by antibiotics or the body's own defenses.
HIV can't, however.
2., and most importantly, HIV, while it always kills, left to its own devices, it kills very slowly.
When someone contracts HIV, they might notice, 2-4 weeks post-infection, what seems like a bad flu, they get a sore throat, headache, fever, exhaustion, all the usual suspects.
Maybe they go to the doctor, where they get prescribed some useless antibiotics.
Then, they get better, they feel better.
And they stay better for many years. They enter the latent, or "no symptoms" stage. On average, 8-10 years, they feel fine, look fine, act fine. All the while, though, HIV is killing T cells by the billion, and billions more T cells get created to replace them.
But very slowly, over what might take as long as 20 years, HIV overwhelms the body's defenses, and cripples the immune system.
When T cell count drops below 200 (average is ~700-1400), the latent stage is over, and they have AIDS.
They can't keep weight on, they might get a cough that never goes away, and exhaustion no matter how much they sleep.
On average, without treatment, about 3 years after the patient develops AIDS, about 12 years since infection, they catch an infection, usually pneumonia, and die.
But before HIV kills, that's about 10 healthy years they have (with treatment, this can now be lengthened considerably).
So suppose a very promiscuous person that has a lot of anal sex, gay or not, catches HIV. That's 10 years they have to pass on that virus. And if each carrier passes the virus to more than 1 new person before dying, the virus wins, and the infection spreads.
That's why HIV is so dangerous, and that's why the infection is still growing in the population.
Even with the advantage of the drug regiment HAART (High Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment) that can reduce the virus to undetectably low levels in the patient's blood, the virus still spreads, because of the long latent period for spreading the virus, which is a major gain for individual sufferers of the virus, but a huge problem for the population as a whole.
HIV is a serious, serious problem, especially in its birthplace, sub-Saharan Africa, where as much as almost 30% of the population is infected with the virus.
It's a serious problem even in the US too, and other rich countries, where the infection rate is much lower. HIV is directly responsible for about 3.1% of all deaths yearly.
And since it spreads so much and so easily in poorer areas of the world, that causes other problems.
First, the people with the virus in Africa might not be receiving the drugs that extend their life by decades, or, even worse, they might receive them, but either by ignorance or circumstances of poverty, not adhere to the drug treatment regimen (once HAART, the drug cocktails, are started, they can never be stopped, until death), allowing drug resistant forms of the virus to arise.
The lessons are clear, for HIV, and all other diseases:
Antibiotics, while a huge boon to humanity for almost a century now, can no longer be relied upon as our only defense against parasites.
HAART can fight HIV, but it can't fight ignorance, and the disease continues to be spread by ignorance.
We need to make cultural changes, all of us. Our strongest defense against diseases is still our bodies own immune system.
In your own interests, and for the world, keep your immune system strong: exercise regularly, sleep enough and regularly, eat well and drink enough water.
Wash your hands, and disinfect common surfaces to prevent spreading diseases.
If you go to the doctor for being sick, don't demand antibiotics if your doctor doesn't recommend them, they won't help and will harm all of us by building bacterial resistance. Go home and rest and drink water.
If you are given antibiotics, take them regularly and take them all, even if you feel better. You don't want to get re-sickened by newly resistant bacteria.
Practice safe sex. HIV is still spread in the US primarily in the gay community, mostly because anal sex has by far the highest transmission rate, and because repression of gay people over the previous decades have bred cultures where gay men repressed at home in their childhood move to the city, where they get exposed to promiscuity and the exciting new lifestyle their parents never let them have at home.
And in the developing world, it's unconscionable that even though there's enough money to go around, a significant portion of the global population has no clean water, no medical care, they're on their own.
We in the West must contribute to improving sanitation in the developing world, as that's something that truly affects us all, not just the ones that live in it.
There are changes we need to make. Short of an effective HIV vaccine, HIV and other nasty parasites will never be beaten by drugs alone.
The age of antibiotics as we know them is coming to an end, our drugs are becoming increasingly ineffective against bacteria.
We're currently in free fall in our war against the parasites, and we must make precautions to soften the landing when our antibiotics finally start to really fail us.