Friday, May 26, 2006
Monkey poop and dope--hey, it's a holiday weekend
So I send you to medical school and the best you can do is sniff through a pile of monkey poop?--Well, yes. And the result is that we now know that the HIV virus that causes AIDS originated in chimpanzees in Cameroon, Gabon or the Congo. It turned out the monkey shit contained the missing link in the scientific hunt for the virus' origin. The result was not unexpected. At least one subspecies of chimps carries a simian immune deficiency virus related to HIV, but no one was sure of a direct link until an international team tested hundreds of piles of poop. Also unknown is when the virus jumped species (the first cases popped up in the U.S. in 1981). The best guess is that it happened 50-75 years ago, based on genetic data. Likely, someone infected from a chimp (they either killed one or ate one—it's done) travelled to Kinshasa or Brazzaville, infected someone else and someone hopped a plane. There still remain gaps in the record, but the discovery, reported in Science adds an important clue. Larry Altman's story in the Times is here, Reuters is here, and AP here. Forty million people have caught the disease, 25 million have died, mostly in Africa.
You put that toke down this minute, you idiot, and go buy me a pack of Marlboros at the 7-11.—Let's all gather around and watch the logic. Cigarettes undoubtedly cause cancer and heart disease and kill millions of Americans every year. They are legal, if expensive. Alcohol brings tragedy in multiple ways to millions of others, either because they become alcoholics, or have alcoholics in the family, or do bad things under the influence of alcohol, and it is legal, widely advertised, relatively cheap and a foundation of our social structure. Marijuana, on the other hand is absolutely illegal according to the federal government, even when used for medicinal purposes and even when voters in about a dozen states have tried to legalize it. A study at UCLA, the largest ever concluded, has shown no relationship between the dope and lung cancer no matter how much you smoke. Not only did they not find a link, there is a hint that marijuana actually has some protective qualities. The researcher involved, Donald Tashkin, has been cited for years by the feds defending federal policy on marijuana, so the study should be inconvenient, or it would be if actual thought was going into the policy. Tashkin still thinks marijuana can be dangerous (there is no solid evidence yet to support that unless you get stoned and drive off a cliff) but opponents of legalization are going to have to find some new arguments.
[Chimp photo from the Jane Goodall Institute, Tashkin from UCLA]