Everything But the Facts: HIV-Panic in 2015

AIDS Hysteria

By Johnny Wolf

A few days ago, media outlets across the globe started covering a story about a “new” strain of HIV discovered in Cuba, CRF-19_cpx. Here’s the study sparking the news stories, published online in January, 2015:


Now bear with me for a second while I provide a context for talking about HIV sub-strains and CRFs:


To be brief, CRFs (Circulating Recombinant Forms) are what happen when genomes from two or more different subtypes of HIV recombine (during a process known as reverse transcriptase) and spread. If more than 4 epidemiologically unrelated cases are found, this strain gets its own category as a new CRF. Recombinant virus strains aren’t all that uncommon, but CRF-19 is cited as a particularly aggressive strain of HIV-1…however, this news isn’t really “new.”

10 years ago, in December 2005, the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes published an article about CRF-19_cpx in Cuba:


To quote the abstract from 2005: “These results allow us to define CRF19_cpx as a second novel CRF… and to characterize a unique CRF18/CRF19 recombinant virus.”

So if this HIV sub-strain was discovered at least 10 years ago, why the headlines now? Fear-mongering? Click bait? When we expect our media outlets to do our research for us, especially on issues regarding HIV health, we’ll find ourselves sadly uninformed, lacking a broader context or solid understanding of issues relevant to the LGBTQ community.

Here’s what this weeks headlines tell me about our country’s major news outlets: This issue isn’t new, you just didn’t give a fuck 10 years ago.

It’s important that we keep talking about developments in HIV treatment — I don’t write this blog entry to downplay the importance of continuing research and development in treating recombinant sub-strains of HIV-1. But I am writing because I’m tired of news outlets picking and choosing when they want to make the public panic about butt-sex. The science, the studies, and the people have been around for years… and still, the world hasn’t ended. 


Furthermore, the 2005 and 2015 article point to CRF-19’s existence in both Cuba and parts of Africa — and mention that rate of transmission in Cuba far exceeds that of transmission in Africa. While I’m not trained in epidemiology, this fact (which has largely been ignored by most news outlets) offers context: there are variables besides the type of sub-strain that might contribute to the rate and severity of seroconversion. That is to say: when “less-developed” countries in Africa aren’t experiencing the same proportional surge in CRF-19 cases, it makes you wonder about other environmental or sociological factors that could be contributing to the rapid progression from HIV to AIDS in the Cuban population sample with CFR-19.

Most interestingly, the recently covered 2015 article notes that 49% of the AIDS-RP (AIDS Rapid Progression) group studied identified as heterosexual, and 20% of that same population didn’t use condoms. What concerns me is the former: when we characterize HIV as a “gay” disease and when our media stigmatizes sex between men as the root causes of “incurable” diseases, partners are less communicative with each other about sexual health — especially men that are too afraid to be honest with themselves about their sexual preferences. Your sex practices are your choice: but as with any sex, bareback or wrapped, you make a choice based on the information you’re given. When we see stories about a “new” or supposedly “untreatable” virus — when we’re given catchy headlines instead of the facts — those conversations become harder to have. In an era where HIV criminalization laws are gaining popularity in the US and elsewhere, we deserve better, and need to demand science in lieu of unwarranted hysteria. At the end of the day, the shame that this fear-mongering induces in men who have sex with men seems far more dangerous to the general public than your personal preferences in the bedroom. 

In beginning to head toward a more productive conversation about HIV, I want to share a FB post made by Eric Paul Leue, Mr LA Leather 2014, as the media hype over CRF-19 began a few days ago:

Hi All, there is a lot of commotion flying around the net in regards to CRF19_cpx (HIV-1 subtype in Cuba). This type has been studied since 1999 and there are research papers about it over the years – this is not new.

The strain is susceptible for treatment with tenofovir (and combination medication that includes tenofovir, such as Truvada, Atripla, Stribild, Complera) as well as other medication. Active agents that are being researched for the use as PrEP such as raltegravir and maraviroc are also on that list.


It’s measured and well-informed voices like this one that are sorely missing from conversations about sex and HIV. So when you read stories about this “new super strain” in Time Magazine, CBS News, the Miami Herald (which, disgustingly, spins the story to touch on fears regarding immigration and relations with Cuba) or even Str8upgayporn, take the sensationalism with a grain of salt. The people that get paid every time you click on their coverage rarely have your best interests at heart. If you won’t take it from me, then by all means — go out and get the facts for yourself.


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