What if you're immune to HIV?
In the last decade, studies have shown that a very small percentage of people seem to be almost totally immune to HIV.
In 2005, American journalist Randy Dotinga summarized the early findings like this: “An estimated one percent of people descended from Northern Europeans are virtually immune to AIDS infection… All those with the highest level of HIV immunity share a pair of mutated genes — one in each chromosome — that prevent their immune cells from developing a ‘receptor’ that lets the AIDS virus break in. If the so-called CCR5 receptor — which scientists say is akin to a lock — isn’t there, the virus can’t break into the cell and take it over.”
“To be protected,” Dotinga continues, “people must inherit the genes from both parents; those who inherit a mutated gene from just one parent will end up with greater resistance to HIV than other people, but they won’t be immune.”
One study from 2001 in Science Daily reported that persons with the CCR5 gene from only one parent “had a 70 percent reduced risk of HIV infection.”
Reports that I have read suggest that between one and three percent of Northern Europeans are “immune” overall, and about 10 to 15 percent have greater resistance to HIV. So it seems as if a few people are genetically predisposed to block the virus from their bodies almost, but not quite, 100 percent of the time. We just don’t hear about them very often.
Thousands of organizations around the world broadcast HIV messages on a regular basis, but very few of them talk about immunity, probably because they’re concerned that some people might take the possibility of immunity as a licence to practise unsafe sex.
Two organizations were so alarmed they reportedly pressured a genetic testing company to stop offering a CCR5 test to gay men. A 2007 brief from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations describes an Australian company, delta32.com.au, that advertised CCR5 testing on gaydar.com.au but closed its website after receiving complaints about the test being offered to gay guys.
I found links to other websites that test for the CCR5 gene, but they too have closed down or did not reply to my emails. Still, the test is available to the public.
But before we discuss where to find it, there are a few important questions to consider: Would you want to know if you are immune to HIV? What would you do with that knowledge?
- Would you stop using condoms?
- Would you believe someone who tells you they’re immune to HIV so they don’t have to use a condom to fuck you? (What about other STIs?)
- If you are an HIV-positive guy, would you want to know if you had one of the genes that make it less likely to have complications from HIV?
- How much would it be worth to you to find out if you are immune to HIV?
These are all interesting and difficult questions. But I think the real question is: should you have the right to know that you might be immune to HIV?
- Is it better that we not know that HIV immunity exists?
- Does this make a better and safer society?
I have no clear answers. But I tend to believe that honesty and transparency make for a better society. I do not think there are many times that hiding information from the public is a good idea.
So I did a great deal of searching online to find someplace where you might find out if you have the CCR5 gene and, if you do, whether you have it from one parent (partial immunity) or both (almost complete immunity).
There is a company in the US called 23andme that does a broad range of genetic tests, including testing for the CCR5 gene. To order the kit and for instructions on how to send them a saliva sample, go to 23andme.com/store. The test costs $209 (US). See an example of the report you will receive!
I assume there are other places that test for HIV immunity, too, but I could not find them. I hope that readers will post addresses of other places, if they find them, on xtra.ca as a comment to this column.
Do I think that, armed with the knowledge of immunity, people might practise more unsafe sex? Probably. Is it their right to make that decision for themselves? Yes, that’s always been our right.
Further reading on HIV immunity: