By Harold Foster, Ph.D., Well Being Journal, Vol. 23, No. 5
Despite the widespread promotion of programs stressing condom use, fidelity, and chastity, HIV is continuing to spread. Globally, as of 2013, 35 million people are currently living with HIV.1 Major geographical patterns of infection, however, are becoming obvious. In the United States, for example, Cowgill has shown that AIDS mortality has had an inverse relationship, especially in African-Americans, with local fodder crop selenium levels.2 That is, the higher the dietary selenium intake, the lower the AIDS mortality rate experienced.
Most of sub-Saharan Africa is selenium deficient. In South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and Botswana, countries where AIDS is now the main cause of death, populations tend to lack an adequate dietary intake of this trace element.3-4 In contrast, Senegal’s soils are derived from marine sediments, many of which are selenium enriched. In its capital city, Dakar, the prevalence rate for HIV infection still hovers at an unusually low 0.5 percent among women attending antenatal clinics.5 Similarly, Finland has experienced only about 50 percent the HIV infection rate of its Nordic neighbors. This appears to be linked to a decision, taken in 1984, to legislate the addition of sodium selenite to all fertilizers used in Finland, in an attempt to reduce the death rate from heart disease.6 As might be expected, mortality from AIDS also is unusually low in Bolivia, a major exporter of selenium.7
Selenium, the Heart, Hepatitis B and C, Polio, Flu, and Immunity
Taken as a whole, the geographical evidence, therefore, strongly suggests that selenium is protective against HIV infection. Such a relationship is not limited to this virus. A frequently fatal illness of the heart, known as Keshan disease, is widespread in the population of the low selenium belt that crosses China from northeast to southwest. Keshan disease occurs only in individuals who are both selenium deficient and infected by the coxsackievirus.8 Virally induced heart disease is not limited to Asia. Nicholls and Thomas have shown that 10 out of 38 heart attack patients admitted to the King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst, Sussex, England, during a two-month study period had been infected, in the previous week, by the coxsackievirus B.9
Interestingly, patients who take selenium supplements regularly, after their first myocardial infarction, are far less likely than normal to suffer subsequent attacks.10 This knowledge has allowed the Chinese to virtually eradicate Keshan disease by adding selenium to fertilizers, animal feed, and table salt. In Sichuan Province, for example, the use of fortified table salt reduced the annual incidence of this heart disease in children from 7.1 to 0.12 cases per thousand population, during the period 1974 to 1983.11 Throughout the great Chinese selenium deficiency belt, as selenium levels in diet have risen, coxsackievirus infection has dropped and with it the incidence of Keshan disease.
Field trials in China also have shown that hepatitis B and C viral infection rates can be reduced by selenium supplementation. In Qidong County, Jiangsu Province, one town with a population of 21,000 was selected to receive table salt that had been fortified with 15 ppm of anhydrous sodium selenite. Six surrounding townships, where the population continued to use unfortified salt, were monitored as controls.12 Three years later, the incidence of hepatitis had fallen to 4.52 per 1,000 population in the selenium supplemented city. In contrast, communities still using normal table salt had a hepatitis incidence rate of 10.48 per 1,000. A later study of similar design, conducted by Yu and coworkers in the same county, demonstrated that 200 micrograms of selenium, taken daily in fortified yeast, could also protect against the liver cancer that is often associated with hepatitis B and C infection.
There are other viruses that do not easily infect human populations whose diets are selenium adequate. Broome and coworkers, researchers from the University of Liverpool, showed that selenium supplements may protect against poliomyelitis.14 They demonstrated that selenium supplements can improve the human immune system by causing an increase in the enzyme glutathione peroxidase and in the production of interferon gamma and T helper cells and an earlier peak in T cell proliferation. All these changes improved the efficacy of the immune system, making it easier for selenium-supplemented patients to clear their bodies of the picornaviruses in a live attenuated polio vaccine trial.
Animal immune systems also appear to benefit greatly from selenium. Beck and coworkers, for example, have demonstrated that selenium-deficient mice develop much more severe interstitial pneumonitis when exposed to a mild strain of influenza A than do selenium-adequate mice.15 Beck and colleagues concluded that nutritional deprivation in humans probably increases susceptibility to influenza infection. Beyond this, researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Laboratory in Columbia, Missouri, have shown that even insects need selenium to resist viral infection.16 To illustrate, they found that the susceptibility of cabbage looper larvae to the baculoviruses rose and fell with selenium levels in the diets of these caterpillars. One of the researchers involved described what happened when selenium deficient larvae were exposed to this virus. “It’s Ebola for caterpillars…. The virus turns caterpillars into giant virus factories and they dissolve into a pile of goo.”
Simply put, humans, animals and insects that are selenium deficient are easily infected by a wide variety of viruses. Those eating selenium-adequate diets are not. This relationship between the trace element and HIV is the key to reversing the current AIDS pandemic since it is the virus’s Achilles’ heel.
To read the full article, author bio, and references see Vol. 23, No. 5, September/October 2014 (available in print or digital format) of the Well Being Journal.