|THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
To understand AIDS -- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome -- we must first know a little
about the immune system of a human body. Unfortunately, we really don't know exactly
how the immune system works; but here's the best guess so far....
The body's second line of defense against disease (the first being the skin) is white blood cells,
called lymphocytes. They're produced in the bone marrow and circulate along with the blood and
in the lymphatic system. Some of these white blood cells are called "B" cells. Other lymphocytes
pass through the Thymus (an endocrine gland located near the heart) and become "T" cells.
There are several different kinds of T-cells, each with its own function. Research has been able to
identify these different T-cells with special tests, and then the T-cells have been individually
named by the number of the test that finds them. For example, "T4" cells are also known as
"helper" T-cells. They're the watchdogs for the body. They continually scan the body, looking for
anything foreign they don't recognize. and then notify the body about the invader. For instance, if
you get a splinter in your finger, the T4 cells will sound the alarm against a possible infection. Or
if you come in contact with a strange bacterium or virus, or if you receive a new kidney or liver
through a transplant, the T4 cells will activate the body's immune system.
What happens next is that the "B" cells immediately go to work to produce "antibodies" -- new
"special agents" specifically designed to fight any future invasion by this same intruder. This is
the theory behind the smallpox (or any other) vaccine. A very small amount of the disease
organism is introduced in the body intentionally; the T4 cells alert the immune system; the B
cells create the antibody against the smallpox bacteria; and the body is now ready to defend
against any future smallpox invasion.
In the meantime, while the antibody is being produced for future use, Killer T-cells are also
released by the immune system to destroy cells in the body which are presently infected by the
outside organism. The only problem with Killer T-cells is that they have to be calmed down at
some point or the powerful immune system might damage its own body (called
"autoimmune disease"). So there is another kind of T-cell -- the T8 "suppressor" cells --
whose job it is to stop the immune response and call off the Killers. In a normal, healthy body,
there are about 1,000 T4 cells per microliter of blood, and the ratio of T4 ("helper") cells to T8
("suppressor") cells is 2:1.
Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a breakdown of this system. Again, not a lot is known for
certain about the different kinds of immune deficiency diseases. There are cases where the total
number of T cells is so reduced (less than 200 T-cells per microliter of blood) that there are
simply not enough to do their job. Or sometimes the ratio of T4 to T8 cells is thrown out of
balance so much that the major message getting to the body is to "suppress" the immune system
rather than activate it. Or perhaps the T4 "helper" cells remain high enough in numbers, but stop
performing their function for some unknown reason. Or something interferes with the orders to
send out the Killers.
Immune Deficiency Syndrome is not a new disease. It has been recognized by the medical
profession for many years; and its three main causes are also well-known: malnutrition, sleep
deprivation, and intentional interference with the immune system through the use of drugs -- for
instance, in organ transplants (to force the body to accept a foreign substance), and in cancer
patients undergoing chemotherapy. This intentional interference is known as "iatrogenic,"
meaning "caused by the doctor."
What happens to a human body when the immune system can no longer function properly is
quite clear: disease results, either from an outside invader the body can no longer fight off, or
from one of the millions of bacteria, viruses, protozoan parasites, or fungi we all carry with us
every day of our lives. These are called "opportunistic diseases," since they would not occur
unless the opportunity arose due to the malfunction of the normal immune response. Some
examples of the most common opportunistic diseases are: Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia,
Cryptosporidium, herpes simplex, Candida albicans, cytomegalovirus, Toxoplasma gondii,
Aspergillus, Cryptococcus neoformans, Nocardia, Strongyloides, atypical Mycobacterium, and
These are all infections by organisms which would normally not cause serious illness in a healthy
body. But no doctor would be surprised to see any of these diseases in a patient who was
malnourished, deprived of sleep for extended periods, or already suffering and being treated for
another disease with drugs that were known to be "immunosuppressive." The fungus that causes
Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, for example, is known to inhabit the lungs of almost every
human on planet Earth, but rarely has the disease been seen in anyone but cancer patients
What happened in 1981, then, was truly a surprise to one immunologist by the name of Michael
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