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July 21, 2008

Are Africans more genetically susceptible to AIDS?

I posited in my book that one day we might find that certain people, or groups of people, were genetically more susceptible to being infected by HIV. It seemed to me that social and behavioral differences just weren’t enough to explain the patterns of infection. Why, I wondered, did people of African descent, scattered around the world and with very different cultures, often have among the highest infection rates in the world? Think Haiti, which was one of the first countries hard-hit by the epidemic. Or the United States today, where black women are the fastest growing population of people with AIDS. 

Even within Africa, the patterns didn’t seem to make sense. Why did the epidemic peak at a much lower level in West Africa, despite widespread war and conflict and high rates of migration, both of which are believed to contribute to the spread of AIDS? Even within hard-hit communities, I sometimes found that one family would be completely devastated, while the neighboring one was relatively untouched.

Well, now we may have the beginnings of an answer. The New York Times reported earlier this week that a recent study found that a genetic variation found in some people of African decent may make them more vulnerable to infection. The variation once protected people from a now-extinct form of malaria. The authors, in London and Louisiana, suggest that it could explain 11 percent of AIDS infections in Africa.

Interestingly, the study was conducted on African-Americans, who also carry the genetic variation but at lower rates than Africans. If confirmed by future research, this may help explain why people of African descent around the world have been hit so hard by AIDS.

I fully expect that we will hear more news of this nature in the near future. 

One Response to “Are Africans more genetically susceptible to AIDS?”

  1. Brian Dorph Says:

    It is unfortunate that feelings about race and other social groupings, and emotional reactions to any racial distinction as being possible perjoritive, has muted discussions and possibly investigations into genetic traits that might have groupings that have significant racial corelation. Any investigation into our diversity that adds to our knowlege, and better equips humans to deal with the problems we face should be welcomed and not avoided. Thanks for the interesting article.

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