HIV, Networks and the Unknown in 1983

Figure 1. Sexual contacts among homosexual men with AIDS. Each circle represents an AIDS patient. Lines connecting the circles represent sexual exposures. Indicated city or state is place of residence of a patient at the time of diagnosis. “0” indicates Patient 0.

I was doing some research on network theory and found the 1983 paper”Cluster of cases of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome: Patients linked by sexual contact” authored by Dr. David M. Auerbach. It’s a paper which should be commended both for the novelty of its methods and the importance of its results. The authors asked 19 AIDS patients to provide the names of all of their sexual partners. Patients with AIDS were so few at the time, that they quickly spotted several of the names on lists of AIDS patients in other cities. They were then able to produce the graph at the right and it became, perhaps, the first application of network analysis to HIV.

From this, researchers were able to deduce that sexual contact was a likely transmission route, and were able to determine roughly the incubation period of contact to onset of symptoms. This paper provided strong evidence that AIDS was cause by an infectious agent.

It’s truly hard to believe that at one time, the cause of AIDS was largely unknown, even as late as 1983. While the world laughed (I lived in Mississippi), medical professionals and researchers must have felt completely powerless, having no information on what caused the disease, how it was transmitted and no way to treat it. It’s incredible that we come so far, quickly, but a cure will remain elusive for likely decades to come.

Abstract
The possibility that homosexual men with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) had been sexual partners of each other was studied. Of the first 19 homosexual male AIDS patients reported from southern California, names of sexual partners were obtained for 13. Nine of the 13 patients had sexual contact with one or more AIDS patients within five years of the onset of symptoms. Four of the patients from southern California had contact with a non-Californian AIDS patient, who was also the sexual partner of four AIDS patients from New York City. Ultimately, 40 patients in 10 cities were linked by sexual contact. On the basis of six pairs of patients, a mean latency period of 10.5 months (range seven to 14 months) is estimated between sexual contact and symptom onset. The findlng of a cluster of AIDS patients linked by sexual contact is consistent with the hypothesis that AIDS is caused by an infectious agent.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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