Viruses Role in Disease

The word virus comes from the Latin meaning "poison," the result of the pathological and sometimes lethal outcomes of viral infections. Although microbiology has been dominated by the attempt to root out disease, healthy organisms are characterized not by their biological purity but by the ecological harmony of the cells that compose them. Organisms that invade and kill their hosts also ruin their environment, and are thus selected against in evolution. The same logic applies to viruses: although infamous for their role in diseases such as colds, herpes, measles, mumps, influenza, polio, smallpox, hepatitis, and human papilloma viruses (HPVs) and AIDS (HIV), most viruses go unnoticed because they cause no harm. A virus that multiplies too rapidly—say, by killing its hosts before they can reproduce—also destroys itself. Thus, over the vast reaches of evolutionary time, viruses that either do no damage, or less-than-fatal damage, have been the ones to survive. Because a given virus makes more of itself only under specific conditions, it may be stable within a population until that population itself overgrows, providing the virus with new opportunities for replication.

Thus the crowded conditions of modern humanity have been ideal for the spread of viruses, as has our tendency to replace biodiverse environments with agricultural monocrops. As frightening as they seem, the blind replication of a given virus that is afforded opportunities for growth helps keep ecosystems diverse, by tending to attack species components that become disproportionate. Viruses can also mutate to attack new hosts. The immune system recognizes as foreign to the body those strange proteins produced by viral growth. The immune response involves a variety of cells that recognize and destroy the replicating intruders. One of the frightening things about HIV is that it attacks the immune system itself, like a peremptory military strike against a missile defense system. However, again, we should not get too carried away with such militaristic medical metaphors, as parasites actually need the hosts that they are attacking to live.

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