AIDS: Around longer than you’d think.

Science News recently had a report on Michael Worobey’s work tracking AIDS.

The common conception of this disease is that it struck America in the 1980s, bringing the Sexy Seventies to a screeching halt and making it not only acceptable but necessary to show commercials for condoms on network television. Lives were at stake, after all.

What Worobey has found, however, is that this rugged little virus has a more complicated history than that. It had been in the United States since the late 1960s – 12 years before it was previously thought – and it first came not directly from Africa, but from Haiti:

The analysis also shows that the ancestry of most viruses in the U.S. can be traced back to one common ancestor — the virus that came from Haiti in about 1969.

“Before this study, that had not been nailed down,” Worobey said.

The research also reveals that Haiti has a much larger genetic diversity of subtype B than does the U.S.

“The U.S., Australia, Europe plus many countries have just a subset of the subtype B diversity you see in Haiti,” Worobey said.

The virus moved from Africa to Haiti in about 1966, he said. Haiti has more diversity of HIV than does the U.S. and other countries because the virus has been there longer and had more time to mutate.

The finding helps explain the early observations of a high prevalence of AIDS in Haiti, Worobey said. “The virus had simply been there longer.”

“The main challenge of developing a vaccine against HIV is its tremendous genetic diversity,” he said.

This discovery could go a long way to explaining the curious case of Robert R., a St. Louis teenager who’d never left America, never had a blood transfusion and never had anything to do with chimpanzees, and who died of a mysterious ailment in 1969. A decade and a half later, in 1984, scientists studied blood samples and realized he’d died of AIDS. Somehow.