Infectious Diseases

Why there is still no Cure for AIDS



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The subject of AIDS, and HIV, is a sensitive one. The AIDS pandemic has affected millions of people worldwide, with a large proportion of them being children, and is considered one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. With scientists across the globe searching desperately for a vaccine for HIV (which is the most prevalent precursor to AIDS), their collective difficulties have given rise to a number of alarmist theories and the dissemination of misinformation. Some of these are rooted in truth; some are playing up to faulty science. To best understand the difficulties these scientists are facing, it's important to understand the nature of HIV, and how it commonly leads to the onset of AIDS.

Many people use the terms AIDS and HIV-positive interchangeably, but this is incorrect and misleading. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is, as indicated by the word 'syndrome', a collection of symptoms, or detectable characteristics. In theory, a syndrome could have a variety of physical causes, but usually the collection of symptoms can be narrowed down to a few causes, if not one. However, AIDS refers to the specific damage caused to the immune system by HIV - while the presence of HIV doesn't always cause AIDS, but if left untreated, most people do eventually develop the syndrome, and nine out of ten people with AIDS die relatively shortly afterwards.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus, which in layman's terms are known for using a particular enzyme to encode their RNA into the DNA of their host cell - essentially, the retrovirus takes over. They also replicate extremely quickly, which means they're provided with enormous opportunities for genetic mutation - the more they mutate, the greater the chances that they'll develop strains that are genetically guarded against certain threats, such as the limited number of drugs available for treatment. The reason why HIV is so lethal is because it attacks our only means of counterattack - our immune system - by targeting the helper T cells, which are a type of white blood cell. T helpers don't directly attack infections in the body but are crucial for activating and directing other immune cells. By crippling the immune system, HIV leaves people virtually unable to defend themselves against the slightest of diseases.

While it's true that pharmaceutical companies stand to profit from the prevention of the development of an HIV vaccine, it would be irresponsible to claim that they're actively suppressing one. Without available evidence to support such a statement it stands as conspiracy theory. Additionally, while AIDS itself is diagnosed by conducting a CD4 (Helper) T cell count in a blood sample and is sometimes criticized for not directly testing for the presence of HIV, it is used to monitor the functioning of the immune system - a test that would necessarily follow various other tests indicating the presence of HIV. The two most frequently used tests are generally conducted in conjunction with one another; the ELISA test is verified by the Western Blot procedure, and is considered to have an accuracy of approximately 95%, which includes the risk of a false-positive outcome. So while the tests aren't infallible, they're still quite reliable. There is a time window between infection and identification that lasts approximately three months and up to six, but beyond that the tests are good.

The biggest problem facing the development of a cure for HIV (which would allow the immune system to recover, and AIDS to be alleviated) isn't politics, or disingenuous doctors. Certainly, prohibitive research and testing costs as imposed by the FDA, as well as powerful lobbying on behalf of 'Big Pharma', probably stall the development of a vaccine (at least in the US) and are valid concerns that need to be addressed. The difficulty lies in the virus itself, and the fact that it can replicate so quickly, and that the best type of treatment we have (a cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs that are intended to keep HIV from adapting to any one in particular) is costly, has serious side effects, and can't do much more than stall the virus. If you miss a daily dosage, there's a chance that the virus could develop resistance to the drug in that short a time span, and you wouldn't really know until the symptoms worsened. While there have been numerous vaccines that had promising results in the phase-1 trials (in carefully controlled conditions in a laboratory) virtually none of them have been yet able to deliver anything near that promise in phase-2 (real world) trials.

Thus, until a vaccine is successfully tested and administered, the most people can hope for is to halt the progress of the virus. This implies, in addition to the anti-retroviral drugs, living an extremely healthy lifestyle geared to bolster the immune system - meaning regular exercise, a strictly regimented diet, and being meticulously conscious of hygiene to avoid contracting any diseases. It's not an easy lifestyle to maintain, but until our medicine advances, it's really the best chance that a HIV-positive person has.

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