The Sea Has Neither Sense Nor Pity: the Earliest Known Cases of AIDS in the Pre-AIDS Era

By Rebecca Kreston | October 22, 2012 3:35 am

This is the story of a sailor and a pirate, and the two different types of oceans that they traversed. There are seven on Earth but only one courses through man. This ocean contains no mysterious and pale sea creatures, bottomless depths or brightly-flashing predators, but it does brim with industrious cells, with dissolved carbon dioxide and occasionally with unwanted parasites.

In August of 1961, a Norwegian teenager sailed from a fjord in Oslo through the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to Douala, Cameroon, a port tucked under the outward slab that makes up West Africa. He was a freshly turned fifteen year old and was working as a kitchen hand on a Norwegian merchant vessel. From Cameroon, he and his crew on the Hoegh Aronde sailed northwesterly from port to port, docking at Nigeria, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Senegal over a period of 10 months before returning to his homeland (1).

It was an exotic start to what would be a short but wide-ranging career as a sailor – over a period of four years, he would call at ports in Asia, Europe, Canada and throughout the Caribbean. Though he would never find himself in West Africa again, he would always carry a souvenir of his visit to this incredibly diverse and ecologically rich niche of the world.

The route of the Norwegian sailor’s initial trip abroad on the Hoegh Aronde, from Oslo, Norway to Doula, Cameroon from August 1961 to May 1962. Image: Edward Hooper, 1997 (See References). Click for source.

His journeys were lonesome, solitary. In Cameroon the sailor unburdened himself of his loneliness and slept with at least one woman, catching gonorrhea – this much is known. Perhaps it was the same woman or another that infected him with an unfamiliar virus simmering away in West Africa just waiting to travel foreign oceans and lands. A viral hitchhiker with a proclivity for the horizon, a pirate if you will. This virus, a certain strain of HIV included in the rare outlier group O that is genetically and immunologically distinct from the main group M that is plaguing the world today, a HIV group that native to West Africa and to Cameroon in particular but found itself in a Norwegian man who would travel the world.

When he returned to his homeland in 1965, he married and became a father to two children in a short two-year span. In spite of his exciting new role as  husband and father, he often felt unwell and his family was plagued with strange illnesses. His muscles ached, a red rash covered his body and he found himself often besieged by respiratory ailments (2). In 1967, his wife became ill with fevers, an omnipresent yeast infection as well as the same respiratory infections that lurked in her husband. The next year, the sailor would see his youngest daughter developing unusual diseases not often seen in toddlers – arthritis, blood and bone infections, along with the same yeast and respiratory infections afflicting her family.

Despite his poor health, the sailor found himself crossing the sea again to Europe. From 1969 to 1973, he worked as a long-distance truck driver delivering cargo as he traversed Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy (1).

With his ailing family far away across the North Sea, the sailor would seek refuge again in Europe. His coworkers would later say that he slept with many women and prostitutes along his long and lonely lorry routes. Often beginning his route in Wesseling, Germany, he would deliver to Liége and Lyons in France, occasionally stopping in Reims between the two cities (1). Investigators in this part of France would later find cases of HIV group O in individuals that had died in the late 1970s and early 1980s but had never visited verdant Cameroon.

In 1974, the sailor fell deeply ill. He died two years later, at the age of 29, his body riddled by bizarre diseases and was followed quickly in death by his wife and his youngest daughter. Autopsies would find puzzling results – overwhelming systemic infections not often seen except in the severely immunocompromised. The pathologist conducting the autopsy would save the sailor’s lymph node, liver, kidney and lung, the mother’s leg muscle and the daughter’s lymph node, spleen and liver and, years later, the family’s serum samples would test positive for HIV antibodies. This unfortunate family, to this day unidentified, represent the first recorded cluster of confirmed HIV/AIDS infections in the pre-AIDS era, before the AIDS pandemic sparked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sailor’s daughter is the earliest known case of pediatric AIDS (3).

“The sea has neither sense nor pity,” wrote Anton Chekov in his short story “Gusev”. Blood churns, dark liquids pumped through the valves by the stalwart heart, all the while feeding our bodies oxygen. A corrosive virus pirates the sea, hijacking cells and visiting the ports of our body, our brain, muscles, spleen and liver. Why infect that one person, at that moment in time? There is no meaning or sense to it. The tides rise, the tides fall. The earth spins, blood spills. A ship makes its port on schedule, becomes lost or is brought to the bottom of the sea. A man dies from an infection caught 15 years earlier in a distant port, a salty partner that he introduced to his family. There is no meaning, little salvation and only grief.

Note

This article was awarded the Best Life-In-Science post at the inaugural ScienceSeeker awards for 2012-2013.

Resources

If you’d like to read the “Gusev” story by Chekhov, you can do so here.

Shortly after the researchers’ work into the Norwegian AIDS cluster, researchers from Tulane discovered evidence that a St. Louis teenager, Robert Rayford, was infected and died of AIDS in 1969. His case is troubling – a 15 year old succumbing to an infection that typically takes year before progression to AIDS and death. Some sources claim he was a gay prostitute while others say that he was sexually abused as a child. Whichever tragic alternative it may be, the fact remains that this boy had never traveled outside of St. Louis, someone infected him and that AIDS was most certainly circulating in a limited fashion in the United States before the 1970s. Read more about him in this 1988 New York Times article.

A few months back, I created a playlist of hip hop and R&B artists singing about the HIV/AIDS crisis and admonishing safe sex to their listeners. Check out the playlist and accompanying article “Let’s Talk About Sex: Hip Hop on HIV” here.

References

1) Hooper E. (1997) Sailors and star-bursts, and the arrival of HIV. BMJ. 315(7123): 1689-91

2) Lindboe CF et al. (1986) Autopsy findings in three family members with a presumably acquired immunodeficiency syndrome of unknown etiology. Acta Pathol Microbiol Immunol Scand A. 94(2):117-23

3) Frøland, SS et al. (1988) HIV-1 infection in Norwegian Family before 1970. Lancet. 1(8598): 1344-5

ResearchBlogging.org
Frøland SS, Jenum P, Lindboe CF, Wefring KW, Linnestad PJ, & Böhmer T (1988). HIV-1 infection in Norwegian family before 1970. Lancet, 1 (8598), 1344-5 PMID: 2897596

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  • anna

    Est-ce une histoire vraie?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Oui, c’est vrai! Vous pouvez vérifier mes références et les articles scientifiques au sujet de cette famille norvégienne au-dessus des commentaires! Merci de votre visite!

  • anna

    Et cette histoire est tirée que du livre de hooper ou vos trois références en ont parlé et vous en avez réécrit l’histoire? Merci pour vos réponses.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      I will be writing this reply in English, I hope that’s alright. I’ve stretched my French speaking skills to the limit, I’m afraid!

      I wrote this article, this “story” if you will, using information from the three articles that were published in the scientific and medical literature. I have never read Edward Hooper’s largely discredited book on the origins of HIV, “The River”. I do not know if he writes about this Norwegian sailor, who is known in the scientific literature by his alias ““Arvind Noe”, in his book or not. My information is solely from the three references, which does happen to include Hooper’s article in The British Medical Journal (BMJ). Though Hooper’s theories on the origin of HIV are essentially conspiracy theories, this sailor did exist and the reputable, peer-reviewed BMJ decided to publish his article and it has heretofore never been retracted for any inaccuracies. If you would like, I can send you PDF files of all the articles referenced for this article.

  • anna

    Merci beaucoup pour vos réponses.
    Bonne continuation.

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  • Christian Fredrik Lindboe

    Very nice to register the interest in these unfortunate people from the same family reported by myself in the pre-AIDS era. What is generally unknown to the medical society is that these cases were presented by me at an Italian-Scandinavian neuropathological meeting in Rome in June 1977. Even more interesting: My contribution (together with the late dr. Aagot Christie Løken) was published the same year in the Italian journal “Il lavoro neuropsichiatrico, Suppl.62, pp 55-61″ with the title “Subacute encephalitis of unknown etiology in a family with a similar acquired immune defect”. The article shows illustrations, e.g. of cerebral multinucleated giant cells and we postulated that the immune defect may be caused by an infectious agent, possibly a virus! But in science as in other aspects of life, timing is important – and we were definitely too early this time.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Hello Dr. Lindboe! Truly, this is incredible and wonderful news that you found MY article on YOUR article! So very exciting. You should know that people are quite interested in this topic and this family; since “The Sea Has Neither Sense Nor Pity” was published, over 4000 people have read the article and it’s one of the most popular articles on my site.

  • mariasedlak

    What a tragic, yet fascinating narrative. It must have been uniquely terrifying to be suffering from a disease (that we so rightly fear today) without the knowledge of what it is.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Hey Maria! I’m glad that you agree, I too think this is an incredible story speaking of the history of a tragic disease, of globalization, of travel and, most importantly, of family. Thank you for stopping by and for your lovely comment.

  • http://www.letsbewild.com Adventure Nick

    Rebecca, this is a remarkable story. Is this type O especially difficult to pass on, or at least more so than Group M? I wonder, because you mention that he slept with prostitutes, and while you say that there were recorded deaths, an epidemic seemingly didn’t break out, as I would expect with a highly contagious disease contracted by prostitues…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Hey Nick! Thank you for your kind comment. You got that right – HIV-1 Group O can be spottily transmitted through sex and from mother-to-child and Group O has always been a bit player in the HIV pandemic compared to the peripatetic wanderings of Group M. In the case of this Norwegian family, the father passed on his infection to his wife and the wife transmitted it to one of their daughters. The other daughter has never tested positive for the virus or shown any symptoms of infection; presumably she is still alive and living in Norway.
      Group O was thought to be completely unique to northwestern Africa, and to Cameroon in particular, but the infection has been spreading throughout the continent though nowhere near as efficiently or as breathtakingly expansive as Group M. In one of my references, it is noted that there were a few cases of Group O infection found along the European travel routes in this man’s lorry driving days but they’ve never been completely confirmed.
      Thanks for your visit and for your comment! Best, RK

  • Bill Jones

    Wow, it’s quite startling that scientists now can trace the origins of a disease through history. To think that this one sailor, Arvid Noe, could have been responsible for one of the most prolific diseases of modern day. It reminds me of a movie I saw a while ago, Contagion, though that was perhaps much more dramatic. Either way, I think it serves as a powerful reminder of the butterfly effect, and the impact of small events.

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Body Horrors

Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

About Rebecca Kreston

Rebecca Kreston is an infectious disease scholar trained in microbiology and epidemiology. She obtained her Biology degree from Reed College and her Masters of Science in Tropical Medicine from Tulane University. She's lived in tropical jungles, beaches and deserts around the world and has been exposed to several of the diseases that she studies. She currently lives in New Orleans, is a second year medical student and regularly battles insects of the Diptera, Siphonaptera and Hymenoptera orders.

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