How The Iron Curtain Helped Prevent The Spread Of HIV

How The Iron Curtain Helped Prevent The Spread Of HIV

by from Medelita | Monday, Jul 18, 2016

In the early 1980’s, Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1 (HIV-1) subtype B was discovered and declared a pandemic in the Western World. Researchers were unable to effectively track the spread of the virus until recently, when a study published in the Journal of Molecular Epidemiology and Evolutionary Genetics of Infectious Diseases (MEEGID) followed the history of different strains of the HIV-1 virus across years and countries. This international team of scientists from the European Society for Translational Antiviral Research (ESAR) mapped the spread of the HIV-1 subtype B around the globe after it reached the United States in the early 1970s.

The study found North America to be the biggest exporter of HIV-1 to Europe. The interesting thing about this study is tracking the movement of HIV-1 also shows how other factors, such as geopolitics, tourism, etc can affect how a disease spreads. For instance, the study shows Spain has the biggest number of virus exchanges with other countries. Spain is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

This correlation suggests tourism influences the migration of a disease.

The study also found little spread of HIV-1 to Eastern Europe during the 70s and 80s. During this time, as the Cold War raged, leaders of the Soviet Union “built” the Iron Curtain. With everything from physical blockades, such as the Berlin Wall and strong border defense, to halts on migration, very few people were coming in or going out of the Soviet Union. Researchers suggest these political happenings helped minimize the spread of HIV-1 to Eastern Europe. In fact, researchers found different variations of HIV strains during this time period, isolated from those found in the West. However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, there was a significant increase of HIV-1 found in Eastern Europe.

The findings of this study caused the researchers to suggest organizing global level policies that take into account political and socioeconomic factors at the time to help control epidemics. In a statement to the University of Oxford, Assistant Professor Paraskevis, co-lead author from the Department of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Medical Statistics at the Medical School of the University of Athens, Greece, said:  

“This study shows how important it is that policies to prevent the spread of infections are set up on a global scale, and that we understand how – much like in economics – an epidemic in an influential country is likely to have an effect in almost every other part of the world.”

With the new pandemic of the Zika virus and the impending commencement of the Summer 2016 Olympics in Rio, it will be interesting to see if this study’s findings create implementation of new policies regarding tourism and trade.


Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.