New research on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) looks promising, but researchers are still far from finding a cure for this global epidemic. With new HIV/AIDS studies looking at everything from vaccines to stem cell research to bone marrow transplants, it seems like researchers have thought of every approach to defeat HIV/AIDS. That being said, there’s plenty of good reason to keep trying.
According to the U.S. government, there are more than 1.2 million Americans living with an HIV infection (1). When left unregulated or in very severe HIV cases, the symptoms of HIV cause serious damage to the immune system, which causes HIV to develop into AIDS. In 2014, about 20,896 Americans were diagnosed with AIDS and since the beginning of this epidemic in 1880, an estimated 1,210,835 Americans have been diagnosed (2). These numbers pale in comparison to the number of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in developing countries, where the standard of healthcare is well below that of the United States.
According the World Health Organization (WHO), “more than 95% of HIV infections are in developing countries, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 28 million people are living with HIV” (3). The reasons why HIV/AIDS is so prevalent is sub-Saharan Africa are not completely known by epidemiologists. The rates of sexual activity are similar in both the United States and sub-Saharan Africa and despite the increasing number of sexual education programs, the incidences of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are roughly the same. Some epidemiologists attribute the disparity to cultural differences between the U.S. and Africa, such as a higher rate of polygamy in Africa (4).
Regardless of the reasons why this epidemic is so prevalent in the developing world, any foreseeable cure for HIV/AIDS must take these staggering statistics into account. The ideal cure for HIV/AIDS would be a treatment that is inexpensive, only needs to be administered once, and doesn’t require follow up visits with a doctor. One treatment that is still in the development stages, but would fit the bill, is an HIV vaccine.
One promising vaccine trial, known as HVTN100, isn’t necessarily focusing on treating HIV/AIDS, but rather increasing a patient’s immunity in order to prevent him or her from contracting HIV in the first place. An earlier trial that took place in Thailand in 2009 showed that a vaccine like the one in the HVTN100 trial could improve immunity by 31% (5). Modifications to the HVTN100 vaccines have made it specifically viable for sub-Saharan populations. Linda Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and president-elect of the International AIDS Society (who is leading the vaccine trials) said that focusing on providing immunity might be a better strategy for combatting HIV/AIDS because “[she doesn’t] think we are going to treat [our] way out of this epidemic. We are ultimately going to need a vaccine to shut it down” (6).
However, Bekker acknowledges that the HVTN100 vaccine alone will not be enough to stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic right away. It will need to be paired with other preventative measures, education programs, and treatment methods at least until the vaccine can achieve higher rates of immunity. Furthermore, the WHO says that optimism surrounding HIV/AIDS vaccines is hindered by lack of investment in HIV vaccines. The WHO estimates “that approximately $600 million a year is invested in HIV vaccine R&D, the majority which comes from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. However, not enough is being spent to develop candidate vaccines based on HIV subtypes circulating in developing countries (7). More resources need to be directed towards finding a vaccine for HIV because it will be the most widely accessible treatment, especially in developing countries.
(1) “U.S. Statistics.” U.S. Statistics, AIDS.gov, www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/statistics/.
(3) “HIV / AIDS.” World Health Organization, www.who.int/immunization/topics/hiv/en/index1.html.
(4) Epstein, Helen, and Kristen Ashburn. “Why Is AIDS Worse in Africa?” Discover Magazine, 5 Feb. 2004, discovermagazine.com/2004/feb/why-aids-worse-in-africa.
(5) Senthilingham, Meera. “HIV Vaccine to Be Trialled in South Africa.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 July 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/07/19/health/hiv-vaccine-go-ahead-aids-conference/.
(7) World Health Organization. Ibid.
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Currently, Olivia is a senior at USC majoring in Biology and minoring in Spanish. She is the President of USC Health Sciences Education Program, a student organization that seeks to inspire young students to pursue careers in STEM and to foster excitement about the sciences among K-12 students. For the past two years, Olivia has been conducting clinical research on sports injuries in conjunction with the Human Performance Lab at USC's physical therapy school, which is where her interest and experience in biomedical innovation comes from. In her free time, she loves reading about new medical technologies, volunteering at schools around USC, and cheering on the Oklahoma City Thunder (her hometown team). After graduation, Olivia plans on going to medical school and eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon.