The most sophisticated, and deadly, form of the human immune deficiency virus (HIV) to ever surface has been discovered in the body of a long haul truck driver who regularly travelled the border area between China and Myanmar, according to a new study by Chinese scientists reported the South China Morning Post on 25 June.
The strain of the virus, which can lead to AIDS, carried 14 points of mutation throughout its genome, more than any other strain isolated so far, they reported in the latest issue of the journal AIDS Research and Human Retro Viruses.
The mutations occurred when different types of the virus recombined with one another in the host, the team found.
The large number of mutations suggested the driver may have engaged in unprotected sex on a regular basis, and acquired many viral subspecies from a large number of HIV-infected prostitutes, they reported.
The driver was a native of northern Myanmar who frequently crossed in southern Yunnan and other Chinese provinces.
In neighbouring India, truck drivers’ use of local prostitutes has often been cited for helping grow the spread of HIV in the country.
The latest study was led by Professor Zheng Yongtang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Zoology. It described the Myanmar-China border as a “hot spot” for HIV mutations. Kunming is the provincial city of Yunnan.
“The lack of cooperative efforts between the Chinese and Myanmar governments has made HIV control and prevention in this region very difficult,” said a researcher in Zheng’s team, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“What we discovered could be only the tip of an iceberg, with more sophisticated and deadly viral strains probably still at large out there.”
The border area is also known as a production and transportation hub for narcotics. It is populated with many users of injectable drugs, one of the easiest ways of transmitting HIV via blood.
Commercial sex workers are another high-risk group. They can easily be found in inns and hostels that line highways in this part of the world. Compounding the problem, many offer to forego the use of condoms if clients pay a surcharge.
But truck drivers pose the biggest headache in terms of regulating and controlling the spread of HIV due to their itinerant lifestyles, which make them difficult to track, according to the team.
“They can go to any city in China, and no one knows they are carrying the virus,” the researcher said.
“If they engage in unprotected sex wherever they stop, the consequences could be very serious.”
Chinese law does not impose mandatory HIV tests for its citizens, although many local companies require foreign workers to take health screenings that include such tests before granting them work visas in China.
The discovery of the sophisticated virus showed there is an “urgent need” to better understand the genetic diversity of HIV in the border area, the paper added.