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The HIV/AIDS crisis has caused devastating loss across the globe — contributing to lifelong illness, stigma and discrimination, and of course, death.
As truly heartbreaking as this is, a new day is on the horizon. Thanks to medical breakthroughs, increased funding and awareness, and decades of grassroots activism, we are making serious headway in the fight against HIV/AIDS — across the entire planet.
Although the disease still impacts the lives of millions worldwide, diligent work from global humanitarian organizations, government agencies, and healthcare workers has given us a lot to be optimistic about. So, we’ve compiled a few highlights here for you!
HIV Good News: Here’s Why We’re Hopeful About the Fight Against HIV/AIDS
Five people have gone into remission thanks to advancements in medicine — and a sixth patient may also now be free of HIV.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS prevention in recent years is the widespread use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).
This drug therapy, approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2012, has been a key player in preventing HIV transmission through sex or injection drug use. Antiretroviral drugs, such as PrEP, also slow the replication of the virus and prevent it from progressing to AIDS.
Although PrEP has become a more accessible treatment for the virus, scientists have been hurriedly working towards cures for HIV for decades — and we’re finally seeing some results.
In February of this year, scientists in Germany confirmed a fifth-ever patient had been cured of HIV after receiving stem cell transplants that include genetic mutations that carry a resistance to HIV.
But it looks like a sixth patient may soon be able to join this very exclusive club.
The man, referred to as the “Geneva patient,” underwent a stem cell transplant after cancer treatment, though these cells did not include the HIV-resistant genetic mutation.
Still, he went off antiretroviral therapy for HIV in November 2021, and his viral load remains undetectable.
Instead, doctors are researching whether a drug called ruxolitinib may be partially responsible for his recovery.
Ruxolitinib decreases inflammation associated with HIV by blocking two proteins, JAK1 and JAK2. This helps kill off “reservoir cells” that lay dormant in the body and have a potential to cause rebounds in patients with HIV.
Reservoir cells have been a hurdle for doctors for years, and for those who have studied JAK inhibitors, the results of the Geneva Patient are cause for (cautious) optimism.
“When you add this drug, it causes those reservoir cells to die faster,” Christina Gavegnano, an assistant professor at Emory School of Medicine who oversaw the research, told Wired. “It stops the virus from popping back out of them and infecting new cells.”
“We’re getting to a point where we’re seeing that what we believed in all along does, in fact, have potential,” she added.
Experts say the AIDS crisis can end by 2030 across the globe — as long as leaders prioritize this goal.
A new report from UNAIDS shows a clear, optimistic path to ending the AIDS crisis. (This looks like a 90% reduction in cases by 2030.)
The organization’s report includes data and case studies that show that ending AIDS is a political and financial choice — and that governments that have prioritized a path towards progress are seeing extraordinary results.
By following the data, science, and evidence; tackling inequality; and ensuring sufficient and sustainable funding across communities, the global community could wipe out the AIDS pandemic by the end of the decade.
The report demonstrates that progress has been strongest in the countries and regions that have the most financial investments, like eastern and southern Africa, where new HIV infections have been reduced by 57% since 2010.
Investments in treatments, education, and access to care have also led to a 58% reduction in new HIV infections among children from 2010 to 2022 — the lowest number since the 1980’s.
Plus, the number of people on antiretroviral treatment around the globe has risen from 7.7 million in 2010 to 29.8 million in 2022.
The moral of the story? This goal can be achieved, if world leaders put their minds — and wallets — to it.
“We are hopeful, but it is not the relaxed optimism that might come if all was heading as it should be. It is, instead, a hope rooted in seeing the opportunity for success, an opportunity that is dependent on action,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, in a statement.
“The facts and figures shared in this report do not show that as a world we are already on the path; they show that we can be. The way is clear.”
A region in Australia might be the first place in the world to reach the United Nations targets for ending HIV transmission.
Researchers believe that the central district of Sydney, Australia is close to becoming the first locality in the world to reach the UN’s target for ending transmission of HIV.
Specifically, new infections among gay men have fallen by 88% between 2010 and 2022. In fact, there were only 11 new HIV cases recorded in central Sydney last year, and almost all HIV-positive Australians are on antiretroviral drugs.
It is important to note that rates of infection have not fallen equitably across the country. In some outer Sydney suburbs, cases have only fallen by a third, where public health awareness, access to medical treatments, and testing new cases are more limited.
“The extraordinary success in HIV prevention in the gay neighborhoods of Sydney is due to decades of government leadership,” Andrew Grulich, a member of the International AIDS Society, said.
“Working in partnership with community and clinical organizations, effective research-based interventions have been designed and implemented. These numbers show us that virtual elimination of HIV transmissions is possible. Now, we need to look closely at what has worked in Sydney, and adapt it for other cities and regions across Australia.”
And it’s not alone!
Namibia is ahead of schedule in UN targets to end HIV/AIDS.
Although the virus is still the leading cause of death in Namibia, the country is well on track to hit 95-95-95 UNAIDS targets before its 2030 deadline.
In Namibia, 92% of people know their HIV status, 99% of people living with HIV are on treatment, and 94% of people living with HIV who are on treatment are virally suppressed.
In addition to these exciting statistics, new infections have plummeted. The estimated rate of new HIV infections in Namibia is five times lower than it was in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
These encouraging numbers are thanks to the investment and strategic response of PEPFAR, but also to the willingness of local governmental agencies and organizations to adhere to the UN’s Fast-Track approach.
Breakthroughs are being made in HIV vaccine therapies.
Long before we were all asking each other “Pfizer or Moderna?” about our COVID-19 vaccines, scientists have been researching the potential of mRNA vaccines in treating some of the world’s deadliest diseases — like HIV.
And with the success of our mainstream mRNA vaccines, an HIV inoculation remains a goal for researchers across the globe.
Last year, the National Institutes of Health launched a clinical trial of three mRNA vaccines for HIV, and similar studies are being conducted in Rwanda and South Africa, as well.
That said, recent failures have put HIV vaccine research at a crossroads. Luckily, researchers are continuing to explore new options.
Earlier this year, scientists completed a first-in-human trial of an HIV vaccine made in a lab from a unique protein nanoparticle. Results from this clinical study show that the vaccine is safe in people, and while it will not offer HIV protection on its own (it’s intended to be part of a multi-step vaccination regimen), it provided a robust immune response in nearly all 36 healthy adult volunteers.
The nanoparticle vaccine, known by its lab name eOD-GT8 60-mer, successfully expanded the production of an antibody-producing immune B cell in those recipients, which is helpful in producing neutralizing antibodies that protect against HIV.
While this is nowhere near implementation, the science is promising. The team that worked on the vaccine is now collaborating with Modern on an mRNA version of eOD-GT8 60-mer, which would accelerate the testing of HIV vaccines, and, in a perfect world, lead scientists to a discovery even more quickly.
CAR T-cell clinical trials are underway to potentially cure HIV.
This spring, UC Davis Health researchers have dosed the second participant in their clinical trial, which poses the use of CAR T-cell therapy as a potential cure for HIV.
The study involves taking a participant’s own white blood cells (called T-cells), and modifying them so they can identify and target HIV cells, ultimately controlling the virus without medication.
The first participant in the study was dosed with anti-HIV T-cells last August, and the trial is the first of its kind to utilize this technology to potentially treat HIV.
Of course, the trials have a long way to go, and the lab is still preparing to dose a third participant for the study, but CAR T-cell treatments have been successful for lupus and forms of cancer in the past.
“We have reached an important milestone with the dosing of the second participant in our clinical trial evaluating a potentially groundbreaking CAR T-cell therapy to cure HIV,” Mehrdad Abedi, a professor of internal medicine, hematology and oncology said in a statement.
“So far, there have been no adverse events observed that were related to the treatment, and the two participants are doing fine.”
Guidance on how to reduce stigma and discrimination due to HIV/AIDS is reaching people around the globe.
While the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS has significantly decreased — especially towards the LGBTQ+ community — with advancements in treatment and prevention, discrimination is certainly not gone.
While most people now understand HIV/AIDS better than they did decades ago, those most impacted by the virus (like gay men and low-income women and children) still face ongoing barriers to care and economic security.
It is vital to maintain awareness and education interventions.
After all, experts suggest that eliminating discrimination and stigma are key factors in reducing disease. And not eliminating stigma impedes HIV services, argues UNAIDS, “limiting access to and acceptance of prevention services, engagement in care, and adherence to antiretroviral therapy.”
Luckily, UNAIDS provides guidance on how to reduce stigma and discrimination in the community, workplace, education, health care, justice, and emergency settings.
The goal is to, of course, decrease stigma in order to decrease disease, but also to provide folks with the culturally significant support they need to live safe, integrated lives — with or without disease.
For instance, a 2022 study conducted in Northern Uganda showed that local cultural knowledge passed through Elders was a successful intervention in reducing HIV-related stigma among young people.
“Research in school settings has shown that the use of local cultural stories, songs, myths, riddles, and proverbs increases resilient coping responses among students and strengthens positive and socially accepted morals and values,” the study’s discussion reads.
So, while an uptick in acceptance gives us hope, it also gives us a directive: Keep telling the accurate, full, and human stories behind HIV/AIDS, and we’ll all be better for it.