Smallpox demise linked to spread of HIV infection

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The worldwide eradication of smallpox may, inadvertently, have helped spread HIV infection, scientists believe.

Experts say the vaccine used to wipe out smallpox offered some protection against the Aids virus and, now it is no longer used, HIV has flourished.

The US investigators said trials indicated the smallpox jab interferes with how well HIV multiplies.

But they say in the journal BMC Immunology it is too early to recommend smallpox vaccine for fighting HIV.

Kill no cure

Lead researcher Dr Raymond Weinstein, from Virginia's George Mason University, said: "There have been several proposed explanations for the rapid spread of HIV in Africa, including wars, the reuse of unsterilised needles and the contamination of early batches of polio vaccine.

"However, all of these have been either disproved or do not sufficiently explain the behaviour of the HIV pandemic."

Dr Weinstein and his colleagues believe immunisation against smallpox may go some way to explain the recent rises in HIV prevalence.

Smallpox immunisation was gradually withdrawn from the 1950s to the 1970s, following the worldwide eradication of the disease, and HIV has been spreading exponentially since then, they say.

Now, only scientists and medical professionals working with smallpox are vaccinated.

To test if the events may be linked, the researchers looked at the white blood cells taken from people recently immunised against smallpox and tested how they responded to HIV.

They found significantly lower replication rates of HIV in blood cells from vaccinated individuals, compared with those from unvaccinated controls.

The smallpox vaccine appeared to cut HIV replication five-fold.

Immune boost

The researchers believe vaccination may offer some protection against HIV by producing long-term alterations in the immune system, possibly including the expression of a receptor called CCR5 on the surface of white blood cells, which is exploited by the smallpox virus and HIV.

Jason Warriner, clinical director for the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "It's impossible to say whether the withdrawal of the smallpox vaccine contributed to the initial explosion of HIV cases worldwide, but it is a plausible explanation.

"This is an interesting piece of research, and not just as a history lesson. Anything that gives us greater understanding of how the virus replicates is another step on the road towards a vaccine and, one day, a cure.

"Further studies into the role receptor cells play are needed, and even then any discoveries are likely to be just one part of the solution.

"Until we find a way to eradicate the virus from the body, the focus should remain on stopping it being passed on in the first place."

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Robert Solomon - 5/20/2010

This is entirely speculation based on the coincidence of timing. You might as well blame the spread of HIV on the reduced reliance on horse-drawn vehicles. HIV spread rapidly because of the changes in economics, social rules, and technology that brought about more mobility, more sexual encounters, more direct blood contact, etc. How very counter-productive to make this spurious connection sound so sound in a headline!

Charles Lee Geshekter - 5/20/2010

These claims are tenuous, trivial and altogether misleading. They may be critiqued as an example of medical researchers unable to distinguish between causality and correlation.

There is absolutely no indication that the researchers were even aware of the grave weaknesses and problems associated with the reliability and accuracy of the HIV tests to begin with.