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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

World AIDS Day Recap

Published December 1, 2012 5:36 PM by Glen McDaniel
Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day.

This is the 25th annual observance of the day originally organized under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise the awareness of HIV/AIDS and garner support for research, understanding, education and allocation of resources.

We have come a long way in our understanding, treatment and management of HIV infection. I recall as an MLS student in northern Ontario in the late seventies (that's 1970's by the way) first meeting someone who exhibited symptoms of AIDS.  Brian was a friend of one my classmates. He was funny, smart and acerbic. Besides he was a bon vivant and great cook. We loved going over to his house where we knew we would be well fed, given libations and regaled with stories, some of which we doubted were based in  reality.

We had known him about nine months when he confided in us that he was sick and doctors were having a difficult time coming up with a diagnosis or effective treatment. He developed a chronic cough, lost weight rapidly and just looked ashen with a reddish-purple rash. He shared his lab results with us and I recall our excitement as we used our newly found knowledge to help to interpret his CBC.

In early December of 1975, Brian went into the local hospital and died on Christmas Day. We are all saddened and baffled. I still remember his cause of death: pneumonia, cancer and pancytopenia. What?

It was about six years later when there were news stories of several otherwise healthy young men in the USA who were exhibiting similar symptoms and rapid demise that I made the connection to what Brian had. It took another year or so, 1982, before the CDC identified the baffling occurrence of pancytopenia, Kaposi's sarcoma, and PCP pneumonia together as a "new disease" called AIDS.

A year later French scientist, Luc Montagnier isolated a virus directly from the lymph nodes of an AIDS patient. He called the virus lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV). American scientist Robert Gallo from the NIH quickly  followed up by naming a virus in his sample (Human T-lymphotropic virus lll) or HTLV lll.

The following year, 1985, the first laboratory diagnostic test was developed.  The ELISA test was followed by the Western Blot confirmatory testing and the Nucleic Acid Test (NAT). Rapid screening tests were developed and the use of other noninvasive samples like saliva was later adopted. We have indeed come a long way.

The 1980s seem so long ago. It was medical laboratory researchers who did the initial  work in isolating the virus and developing that first diagnostic test.   Together with the development of anti-retroviral cocktails, these initiatives have lengthened the lives of many with HIV infection. HIV has now become for the most part a chronic condition instead of a death sentence.

Infection sill continues and we have more to learn.  There is still no vaccine. But today, it is worth remembering and lauding the valiant genius of those who laid the groundwork that made rapid diagnosis and treatment possible.

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