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What does it mean to be 'cured' of HIV?


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HIV and Aids was first discovered in 1981 when an unusual outbreak of pneumonia in gay men was announced in the US.

There are now an estimated '101,600 people living with HIV in the UK' (2017). However, science is fighting back and the second person in the world has recently been reported as cured from the disease. 

 canning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green) from cultured lymphocyte

Image Credit: CDC and PHIL on Wikimedia Commons 

HIV is commonly transmitted through unprotected sex (including anal and oral). It can also be passed by 'sharing needles', through contaminated 'blood transfusions' and from mother to baby through pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

According the BBC and the NHS website, life expectancy for people with HIV is now “near normal”. This is if they are using what is called 'antiretroviral therapy’ (ART) which uses a "combination of drugs that helps prevent the virus from replicating inside the body and attacking the immune system. 

This breakthrough came in 1996 when ART was first introduced to HIV patients. Now science is taking an even bigger step, with the second person in 12 years recently being cured. The man known only as the ‘London patient’ was, like Timothy Ray Brown (the first man to be cured from HIV), suffering from cancer at the time of treatment. The New York Times spoke to the ‘London Patient’, who said that it was “surreal" and "overwhelming" learning that he could be cured of both HIV and cancer.

 AIDS 2012: Keep the promise march

Image Credit: Greta Hughson on Flickr

Unfortunately this ‘cure’ is still very much a trial. Predictably, it causes a huge strain on its patients, with Mr Brown nearly dying in the process. 

The process involves undergoing a bone marrow transfer to cure the cancer. The transfer has to be from a donor with a “mutation in a protein called CCR5 which rests on the surface of certain immune cells. HIV uses the protein to enter those cells but cannot latch on to the mutated version,” the New York Times said. This is then followed by harsh ‘immunosuppressive’ drugs which can cause some long-term effects. The transfer, in both these cases, cures the cancer and the transplanted immune cells now resist HIV and have replaced the old cells. Thankfully the drugs that are currently being used are less intense than when the 'Berlin Patient' was undergoing his transplant. 

After having his transfer in May 2016, the London Patient stopped taking his anti-HIV drugs in September 2017 and is the first person since the Berlin Patient to remain 'virus-free' over a year down the line. 

 Princess Diana on a royal visit for the official opening of the community centre on Whitehall Road, Bristol in May 1987.

Image Credit: Rick on Wikimedia Commons

Not only has the science changed but the stigma surrounding the disease is also rapidly shifting. HIV is very much present in the media now. Princess Diana made the real change when she was seen touching a patient, something that people once believed could give you the disease. She abolished a lot of fear and stigma surrounding AIDS and HIV through the endless amount of charity work she took part in, and her sons continued this after her. 

History is currently being made through these changes. The fact that there have been two people to be cured from a disease that has been around for 38 years and was once fatal to most is quite frankly ground-breaking. This research is giving people hope that not only can they live with HIV but they can now be free from it completely. There is still a long way to go before this is a common occurrence and the process is still very difficult and comes with complications. However the fact that it has now been done twice stands people in good stead. Hopefully there will be many more people who can join the Berlin and London patient in being cured in the near future.  

Lead Image: Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library 


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