Could We Kill Off HIV Without Ever Curing It?

Drug advances can stop the spread of the virus, if we can get them into the right people's hands.


End of an era?
Credit" Wheeler Cowperthwaite / photo on flickr

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1.5 million people died worldwide of illnesses connected to HIV infections in 2013. That looks like a big number, but it's a 22 percent drop from 2009 and a 35 percent drop in deaths from 2005. WHO calculates that HIV drug therapy has prevented more than 7 million deaths between 1995 and 2013.

Some new HIV drug research findings were released this week that affirm a scientific understanding that has been growing now for a few years. HIV drug therapy has advanced to the point where the virus can be fully suppressed and rendered non-transmittable. This latest study, released by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the result of a decade-long project that included more than 1,700 couples living around the world. From The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina:

The significance of the research findings is that AIDS medications, when used consistently, can break the chain of HIV transmission, with the potential to eradicate the virus when all infected people die natural deaths. For the foreseeable future, however, such a medical strategy will disproportionately benefit industrialized countries whose residents have wider, though far from universal, access to modern health care.

The landmark study, financed with more than $100 million in federal research grants, confirmed initial results reported in 2011 and demonstrated that AIDS medications known as antiretroviral therapy, or ART, can suppress the virus for years. The virus can reemerge if the patient stops taking the medicine, but as long as it's suppressed, the virus is essentially harmless and most patients can lead normal, healthy lives.

"If people are taking their pills reliably and they're taking them for some period of time, the probability of transmission in this study is actually zero," Cohen said by phone from Vancouver. "Let me say it another way: We never saw a case of HIV transmission in a person who is stably suppressed on ART."

All the participants in the study were also provided condoms as an extra safety barrier. But there were several pregnancies among those who participated in the study, highlighting that condoms were hardly the last word in prophylactics.

If we were to embrace the suppression of HIV as a way of killing it off, there is still the matter of getting it into the hands of those who are infected. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 50,000 Americans are infected every year, but less than 40 percent of those people are on drugs to suppress HIV. That treatment gap assures that the hunt for a full vaccine will continue.

The development that we have been able to stop the transmission of the HIV virus for a few years now should nevertheless be held up as a significant breakthrough. The biggest public health crisis of the late 1980s-1990s, one that permanently changed the way citizens of developed countries viewed sex and sexuality, could actually end someday.

Related: Truvada, an HIV suppressor that can be used by the HIV-negative people as a prophylactic, is taking off as a treatment in urban centers.

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  1. The problem with any public health solution is that you can’t force people to take their medicine like good little boys & girls, even if it is in their best interest.

    1. They won’t even stop themselves from sharing dirty needles or engaging in sex with multiple people who probably are effected even when you tell them they could die.

  2. “””The biggest public health crisis of the late 1980s-1990s””

    Really? Once they started checking the blood supply, I thought that unless you shared dirty intravenous drug needles or had multiple anal sex partners it was hard to catch?

    1. I think this is what drives me batshit about this whole thing. Many diseases occur without any apparent cause (Leukemia, MS, many cancers, etc.). However, this disease that has had the most money spent on it in the last 25 years is also disease is almost guaranteed not to get if they take simple precautions: wear a condom, particularly with gays and anal sex; don’t share needles. Understand I am in NO WAY condemning anyone. A person shouldn’t have to suffer from a terrible, wasting disease because they wanted an orgasm. But, nature doesn’t give two fucks about what I think is fair.

    2. It may have been the biggest public heath crisis of the time. If so, that should be taken as excellent news. The biggest health crisis is something that people can easily avoid? Awesome.

      I sort of think the same when I hear that drug overdoses or car accidents or something are the biggest killers of people 18-25. That’s good news. People are dying from their own stupid choices and not from random, scary diseases or violence. Something has to kill the most people.

  3. The fact is, this really only changed the way gay men looked at sexuality. There never was a heterosexual epidemic. No judgement here. I am fine with whatever sexual activity occurs as long as its between consenting adults. But I do get a little frustrated with redefining history.

    1. Proportion of adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2011 who were women: 50 percent – See more at:…..jL7r2.dpuf

      1. What if you take sub Saharan Africa out of the equation?

        1. You’d still have Asia, most of Latin America besides Brazil and Atlanta, Georgia.

        2. If you take away the worst of the heterosexual epidemic, is there still a heterosexual epidemic?

        3. If you want to cook your stats, then go all the way and only count people with Y chromosomes. Voila! Zero females!

        4. What if you took gay men out of the equation?

          1. So I don’t have to suffer with any more shitty Tom Hanks movies?

            1. You’d still end up with Angels and Demons

              1. You can’t kill them all at once, but you gotta start somewhere. Next will be Apollo 13. I’m saving Forrest Gump for last, just so I can enjoy killing it painfully and slowly.

              2. And that one where he had sex with a volleyball.

          2. ” one that permanently changed the way citizens of developed countries viewed sex and sexuality”

            1. I’m sure you still think that condoms are only for sailors and sheepskin condoms are just dandy.

              1. I think that when I was in highschool, we were much more concerned about herpes and pregnancy.

                1. Which contradicts jesse how exactly?

                2. My point is that regular (latex) condom use as a preferred method of STD prevention rather than just pregnancy prevention and things like free STD testing became de rigueur in the fallout of the AIDS crisis.

                  YOU may not have thought much about how HIV would affect your life but it altered your sexual milieu even if you weren’t paying attention.

          3. What if you took gay men out of the equation?

            Remove 2% of the population, get a 40% decrease in new infections.

  4. It is a virus, most viral diseases do not have a cure. You have vaccinations and you have ways of suppressing the disease symptoms, but a cures are nigh impossible. It was always a bit pie in the sky to set as a priority.

    1. most viral diseases do not have a cure

      Do any?

      1. I remember hearing about some success with an anti-viral for a couple if diseases, so I did not want to say it had not been done.

      2. Yes, I think. As I understand it, the cure for most infectious diseases is to suppress the infection or the symptoms until the immune system can get rid of it. If you had no immune system, all the antibiotics in the world wouldn’t cure you of anything.

    2. Couldn’t that have been said about bacterial infections before we developed antibiotics?

      1. You’re probably one of those wide-eyed optimists who thinks his face won’t fly off if he travels faster than 60 mph, if that were even possible.

      2. Anything is possible, but I prefer betting on something that has happened before rather than counting on something that has never happened. I think there is a lot of unnecessary resentment created when an unrealistic goal is presented as the standard of success.

  5. Magic Johnson already proved how to cure HIV on South Park. Just blend up a shitload of money and inject it into yourself.

  6. Before the HIV vaccine are produced, drug suppression is still a way to release pain. Thus HIV antibody is so vital. http://www.creative-diagnostic…..ction.html

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