It’s been more than 35 years since the first AIDS cases were diagnosed—epidemiologically speaking, that’s the blink of an eye.
But we’re making great strides in record time: Worldwide, more than 18 million people are receiving lifesaving treatment, and life expectancies for people on medication are almost identical those who are HIV-negative.
Of course, there’s more work to be done.
Below, we celebrate eight advances that signal we’re moving closer to an HIV-free world.
Detecting the virus has never been easier.Imperial College London
Researchers have developed “nanomachines” that can locate HIV antibodies in as fast as five minutes. And the materials for the procedure cost about 15 cents.
There’s also work on a USB stick that can test for the virus. Scientists in London created the device (above), which uses pH levels to test for the HIV-1 virus.
We’re closer than ever to a vaccine.
A new vaccine spearheaded by Robert Gallo, one of the earliest AIDS researchers, is ready for human trials.
It’s designed to bind to the virus at the moment of infection, making it more effective than previous attempts at a vaccine.
And researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have found a new vulnerable site on HIV that could be an ideal target for a vaccine.
By attaching to the virus at that point, it would prevent HIV from properly fusing with the cell.
Scientists can now remove HIV from human cells.
In 2014, scientists at Temple University were able to destroy HIV in human cells, rather than simply suppress the virus.
“It’s an important finding because, for the first time in laboratory setting, we show that the virus can be eradicated from human culture, cell culture,” said Dr. Kamel Khalili of Temple’s Center for Neurovirology.
In 2016, researchers in Germany discovered an enzyme that can eliminate any trace of HIV from the body by “deleting” viral DNA from a cell’s genetic code.
HIV stigma is lessening.
People living with HIV/AIDS still face discrimination, harassment and even violence, but that is changing—slowly. On television, How to Get Away with Murder presented television’s first serodiscordant relationship, without judgment. Shea, Trace Lysette’s character on Transparent, disclosed her HIV status to Josh in Season 3.
The Israeli army has begun accepting HIV-positive service members and other militaries are expected to follow suit.
Even the FDA, which changed its policy to allow gay men to donate blood after one year of abstinence, is considering a move to a policy based on individual behavior rather than group identity.
Introduced just four years ago, pre-exposure prophylaxis has become an increasingly popular tool for helping HIV-negative people stay that way.
The CDC and World Health Organization have both broadened the guidelines for who should be taking PrEP—and insurance carriers are starting to cover it, as well. In 2017 the British government approved PrEP on the NHS.
Infection rates in San Francisco are plummeting.
In 1992, San Francisco was home to some 2,300 new HIV diagnoses. In 2013, that number was 285 new infections. In September 2016 there were less than 100.
The more than 30% drop is thanks to a citywide campaign that includes providing PrEP free to those in need, and prescribing antiretroviral drugs as soon as someone is diagnosed.
“If [San Francisco] keeps doing what it is doing, I have a strong feeling that they will be successful at ending the epidemic as we know it,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
A gene has been discovered that “turns off” HIV.
Actually, researchers have found TWO genes that disable the virus. SERINC5 and SERINC3 block HIV’s ability to infect new cells.
Normally they’re deactivated by the HIV-1 Nef protein, but new drugs could target Nef and allow SERINC to “turn off” the virus.
People with HIV are living longer.Getty Images
A 2017 study showed that young people with HIV who adhere to a regiment of antiretroviral therapy (ART) have nearly the same life expectancy as the general population. The life expectancy of an HIV-positive 20-year-old on ART is 78 years, compared to the average U.S. life expectancy of 78.9.
That’s an improvement of roughly nine years in women and 10 years in men between 1996 and 2010.
“We hope the results of this study go a long way to finally removing any remaining stigma associated with HIV,” says Prof. Helen Stokes-Lampard, who heads the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But the news is not all good: While HIV infection rates are down in general in the U.S., they’re spiking for men who have sex with men.
A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that HIV diagnosis rates among gay and bi men aged 13-24 rose from about 3,000 to about 7,000 between 2002 and 2011.
Experts point to poor risk assessment and a generation that wasn’t alive during the worst of America’s AIDS epidemic, as factors. Until there is a cure, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and each other into making safer and smarter choices.