This scientist carried HIV in her bag to her country
In 1985, AIDS spread throughout the world, although many countries refused to accept it. Since the syndrome had been linked to highly stigmatized populations, such as gay men and injection drug users, some nations believed that it would never reach their territories, where such “problems” did not exist.
This was the case in Bulgaria, which by the 1980s was living under a tightly controlled communist regime. From their side of the Iron Curtain, at the height of the Cold War, AIDS and its causative agent, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), were considered a sign of the decadence of the West, this despite the fact that foreign students and sailors were dying from these causes in Bulgarian hospitals.
But medical experts in virology, such as Dr. Radka Agirova, knew that HIV was something different from what humanity had faced until then, and they had followed its trail closely, according to the BBC‘s Spanish portal, which takes up the story of this pioneer of virology in Bulgaria.
A lucky encounter
While he was studying HIV at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences on his own initiative, campaigns on condom use were already being launched in other countries of the Western Hemisphere, since it was already known that the virus is transmitted through sexual intercourse.
The Bulgarian authorities saw the infection as a distant problem, so they were not interested in delving into the subject. However, Dr. Agirova attended a scientific conference held in Hamburg, in what was then West Germany, thus getting in touch with colleagues from all over the world, an interaction that was a privilege that very few of her compatriots could enjoy.
Also present at that conference was the American virologist Robert Gallo, who is remembered for having established the cause-effect relationship between HIV and AIDS and for developing the blood test to detect HIV.
One of the conference days, Gallo approached Agirova to ask her for a cigarette. Knowing where he came from, he wanted to know more about the AIDS situation in Bulgaria. The virologist’s response was: “I can’t tell you because we don’t have diagnoses, so I don’t know anything about it. We need to test.” The American told her: “Please do them”, and she had to answer: “Yes, but I don’t have the virus”.
Gallo thought about solving that problem. He asked a colleague from the host country to prepare the HIV in his laboratory and package it in a vial the size of a cell phone. They gave it to Agirova to take back to Bulgaria on her return; it would be smuggled in, in her bag.
They gave him two vials with the preparation, red and dark “like red wine”, one vial had HIV-infected cells and the other contained non-infected cells. She loaded them into her bag and returned to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.
The beginning of the story
After landing in her country, the doctor was immediately taken by a friend to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she stored the vials at the required 37 degrees Celsius. However, at that point he could not tell if the cells and viruses had survived the trip. Fortunately, after a few days he could see that the samples looked good.
But with this good news came some bad news for Agirova. The news that she had brought the virus to the country spread and even some of her scientific colleagues were afraid, although some more were “somewhat envious,” the virologist intuits.
The uproar led the rumors to the government security services, who interrogated her for months about how and, above all, with what intention an American doctor had given her HIV to take it to Bulgaria. Agirova had to explain it many times, until she found some allies within the communist establishment and was allowed to start working with her colleagues on an HIV testing system.
By 1986, the country already had 28 testing centers, and in 1990 Dr. Radka Agirova became in charge of educating the population about HIV and AIDS. There is no doubt that stories like Agirova’s, full of conviction and with a touch of daring, are the ones that have managed to change the course of the HIV pandemic in the world.
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