As the International AIDS Conference comes back to the United States for the first time in 22 years, researchers and activists may be looking at the possibility of HIV/AIDS being eradicated in our lifetimes.
This dastardly disease that hides in the body’s cells and spreads in blood, breast milk and sperm and that has killed 25 million people around the world—infecting a million more every year—could be on the verge of extinction due to exciting new scientific breakthroughs in recent years.
The International AIDS Society decided to bring the conference back to the U.S. almost as a reward of sorts after President Obama in 2009 lifted the ban on visas for HIV-infected travelers.
In numbers surpassing 25,000, a cadre of researchers, activists, patients and officials will meet in Washington, D.C., for the colorful conference to trade ideas, demonstrate and float policy ideas. And as pointed out by NBC News, as is always the case with AIDS meetings, protesters will gather to point to inequalities, such as the lack of funding for treating women, the startlingly high rates of infection among U.S. blacks, high prices charged for AIDS drugs, discrimination against sex workers and the stigma that still surrounds the disease.
In the days before the conference, researchers and activists issued something they called the Washington, D.C. Declaration: “Through new scientific advances and societal, political and human rights gains, it is possible to turn the tide against the AIDS and begin to end the epidemic in our lifetimes.”
“It’s time to start thinking about the end of AIDS,” said Michel Sidibe, head of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS.
“We do have these amazing scientific tools at hand that are really enabling us for the first time to begin thinking about a generation free from AIDS,” Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, told reporters in a conference call last week.
To ever cure HIV infection, researchers still have to figure out how to roust it from its hiding places in the body and kill it. HIV is a retrovirus, and it invades the very immune cells that the body sends to fight it off, turning them into little virus factories. Cocktails of drugs called highly active antiretroviral therapy — HAART or ART for short — can hijack this process in various stages and some of the drugs can even protect a person from being infected in the first place.
While HAART can keep patients healthy and can help keep them from infecting others and even protect people who aren’t yet infected, it can’t fully eradicate HIV.
But the case of Timothy Brown, once called the “Berlin patient”, shows it is in theory possible. He was infected with HIV, developed leukemia, and got his immune system replaced with a bone marrow transplant. Luckily for him, the bone marrow donor had a genetic mutation that provided resistance to HIV.
Bone marrow transplants are drastic treatments, expensive and dangerous, and no one thinks it’s possible to use them to treat HIV patients in general. But the science shows a cure is possible.