Friday, 1 August 2014

AIDS, Acronyms and Game Theory

I am fortunate enough to be a part of a wonderful community of individuals, the Western Cape chapter of the MENSA society. 

Last night we got together to hear from a young virologist, Dr Britta Flach, who told us all about the HIV virus and how finding a vaccine for HIV has been a very tough road to navigate for scientists working in the field. 

A few things stood out for me. First, let me make a quick disclaimer; please do not be offended by my thoughts or opinions. When addressing a topic which involves the suffering of others it is always hard to make sure you communicate empathy as well, which I do profess.

To start, both Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) both have the word Immunodeficiency in them, yet the acronyms use this word differently. If the rule was 100% commutable it would either be HIDV and AIDS, or HIV and AIS. Is there a word for when this happens? Furthermore, HIV or HIDV would still have to be spelled out since it is uncomfortable to pronounce and AIDS or AIS could still be pronounced in word form. This rules out the thought that it may have been done for some communication related or linguistic convenience. 

The second thing that was very interesting was the idea of how a vaccine would traditionally work and why it doesn't work with HIV. A standard vaccine introduces a kind-of-dead version of a virus to your system with a very low initial response by your immune system. The response is enough to teach your immune system how to fight of the virus when it is encountered at a later stage. With HIV, the infection targets the immune system itself so you are left with nothing to fight with. The talk ended with this quote; 

"AIDS: a time to return to basic science"

Very interesting. Newton said that he accomplished what he did from "standing on the shoulders of giants" (and he did so rather tongue-in-cheek apparently). In this scenario it would be suggested to get down from the giant's shoulders and find another or be your own!

The last thought I had relates to a podcast by the authors Levitt and Dubner (from Freakonomics fame) who mentioned that email scam artists are pretty good at game theory. They send the same story out without changing anything so that when they get a bite, the victim is likely to fit all the criteria that they require for a successful con. The criteria being a strong dose of naivety, a little greed, a touch of stupidity, some money and internet access. Bob's your uncle (Who also happens to be a Nigerian prince that would like to send you his money). The game theory part comes in here. If they tried to change their strategy, they won't know for sure if replies come from suitable victims or not, since the scam might be too good. 

When it comes to HIV, there is an extremely sad parallel to this story. The most common method of infection is unprotected sex and unlike cancer which does not discriminate, a lot of HIV victims fall into a rather specific category. Rural areas, low level of education, low levels of understanding of the communicability of the disease and, in all likelihood, cultures where sexual promiscuity is less likely to be condemned by society (wrongly or rightly). 

I was infuriated by comments on an article of a gentlemen who had suffered a fatal shark attack, even though he went out while the warning flag was up. Readers commented that he was stupid so deserved his fate. Would those readers feel the same about the AIDS victims or the people who fall for scams? It would be a tragedy if they did. 

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