A Cure; But not a Solution

Colette Combs, Editor

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35.4 million. That is the number of people who have died from AIDS since 1981 when the first cases were discovered. A news story broke this year declaring that a second patient has been cured of HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. However, the applications of this discovery are limited. Right now, a cure for HIV still lies in the future. However, in the meantime, our society has been doing a poor job of preventing HIV. Despite known drugs that can be used to prevent the spread of HIV, the stigma around the infection prevents those at risk from protecting themselves against the virus.    

AIDs, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is a potentially fatal disease caused by the HIV virus, which is transmittable through bodily fluids. HIV itself is not deadly and can be managed, however, if AIDS develops in HIV positive patients, it is terminal. About 12 years ago, the first case of HIV was cured, which was a groundbreaking medical achievement. However, medical professionals were unable to duplicate the cure found to work for that patient. The virus returned in all other patients as soon as they stopped taking their HIV medication. Although doctors now know how to duplicate the twice successful cure, they are hesitant to announce it as an official “cure.” This is because the treatment has only worked twice and is not a realistic solution to the epidemic. Interestingly, the patients were receiving bone marrow transplants to treat cancer, which ending up curing their HIV infections. The transplants cured HIV in these patients because the bone-marrow donors carried a key genetic mutation, called delta 32, that disables HIV’s entry into certain blood cells. Doctors do not currently believe that bone marrow transplants are a realistic cure, given that the procedure is extremely risky and can have lifelong negative side effects. Scientists are now looking to rearm the body with immune cells similarly modified to resist HIV as a potential cure.    

This discovery is a glimmer of hope for those living with HIV, but the fight is not over. The search for a realistic cure for HIV is still an important one. In the time leading up to a cure, prevention is our best chance at reducing cases of HIV. There are currently medications that can be taken to preemptively prevent the contraction of HIV. So if such a medication exists, why are there still so many cases of HIV and so many AIDs related deaths? A large part of the problem is the stigma surrounding AIDs, much of which I blame the US government for. The US Government has a long history of negligence when it comes to care for those suffering from AIDS. Under the Reagan administration, AIDs was often referred to, even by Reagan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes, as a “gay plague” that was sent by God to punish the gay community. Despite the fact that Speakes had been posed questions about the AIDS epidemic as early as 1982, a year after the first cases started appearing with 1,000 deaths already accumulated, Reagan did not publically address the epidemic until 1985, a year in which 20,303 cases of AIDS were reported globally. Even after addressing it, Reagan was slow to allocate proper funding or attention to the epidemic. This irresponsible delay of addressing the epidemic postponed essential funding for HIV/AIDS research for prevention and cures. However, since 2012 when the FDA approved Truvada for HIV prevention, the medication, commonly referred to as PrEP has reduced the risk of contracting HIV from sexual behavior by 90%, and needle usage by 70%. This medication has allowed many who are at risk of contracting HIV to stay healthy and virus-free for years, and allows those with HIV to live full emotional and sexual lives. However, access to this crucial medication remains hindered by private insurance companies, and even in Massachusetts, there has been an ongoing struggle to ensure that insurance companies cover PrEP.  

Because the epidemic was ignored and disregarded by the government for years, the disease became stigmatized. Additionally, because of the most common routes of transmission, the disease has long been associated with drug users and the LGBTQ community, further adding to the stigma surrounding it. Of the 35 million people who are estimated to have HIV worldwide, 25% are totally unaware of their status. As HIV is extremely infectious, such a high number of undiagnosed cases is dangerous.  Many undiagnosed cases of HIV in the United States come from communities where being gay is still highly stigmatized, including but not limited to the African American and Latinx communities. Because of the continued prevalence of violent homophobia in many communities in the United States, people are less likely to get tested for HIV because they fear their peers will assume they are gay. Today, people are still fired, thrown out of their homes, disowned, and killed for being gay. For many, the risk of being called gay is greater than the risk of having HIV, although both are potentially fatal. This association is still strong in the American psyche, despite the fact that HIV has become increasingly frequent in heterosexual individuals.      

A cure may not be far away, but our most important fight is against the sigma rooted in homophobia that surrounds HIV/AIDS. With the existence of this stigma, homophobia is effectively killing thousands.