HIV: 30 Years After Discovery

HIV celebrated a milestone this week as the discovery of the life-altering virus that created a seismic shift among the global community marked its 30th anniversary. On April 23, 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler publicly declared that Dr. Robert Gallo, then the chief of the National Cancer Institute Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology, and his colleagues had discovered the cause of AIDS. It was a retrovirus that would come to be known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was introduced to the global community on June 5, 1981, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), detailing cases of a rare lung infection known as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). The lung infection was caused by Pneumocystis jiroveci, which is a fungus related to P. carinii. PCP would soon become one of the tell-tale symptoms and complications of AIDS and HIV-related infection, as well as a leading cause of AIDS and HIV-related death. PCP occurs in people with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV. It is considered an AIDS-defining condition in HIV-infected individuals. The first signs of infection are difficulty breathing, high fever, and dry cough. This June 5, 1981 edition of the MMWR marks the first official reporting of what will become known as the AIDS epidemic.

30 years after the discovery of HIV, the global community remains without a vaccine for the virus, let alone a cure. As of 2014, according to the CDC, HIV and AIDS has resulted in approximately 30 million deaths worldwide since the epidemic began in 1981. Each year, roughly 2.5 million people contract the virus, with 50,000 of those infections occurring in the U.S. It remains among one of the deadliest diseases on the planet and has altered the way the global community employs protections against disease, as well as conducts their sexual lifestyles.

In the 30 years since the historic announcement, researchers have discovered many details surrounding  HIV and AIDS. First, it is now known HIV comes from a family of retroviruses, which means it encodes its own genome in the host in a reverse process from other viruses. This unique feature makes detecting the virus prior to infection extremely difficult, and serves as part of the reason 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the U.S. today, while approximately 16 percent of those individuals are not even aware they are infected. Additionally, one of the most profound advancement in the last 30 years is the ability to treat viruses. This discovery has prompted drug companies to create a race for a cure challenge to develop antiretroviral therapies that could successfully treat the disease and extend life expectancies for HIV-infected patients. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Truvada in 2012 as the first and only drug intended to prevent the spread of HIV infection. However, due to a number of factors including lack of public awareness, the drug has developed a reputation as a sexual stimulant.

Other HIV advancements over the last 30 years include effective therapies or “cocktails,” which have resulted in the infection becoming dormant and the patient asymptomatic, yet the virus remains in the system. However, some asymptomatic patients have improved so much they subsequently left viral therapy. Additionally, researchers continue to investigate the carcinogenic role HIV can play in host victims. For instance, Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor often associated with AIDS, but caused by the human herpesvirus 8, is invisible in the presence of HIV. However, HIV also increases the replication of the virus; therefore, increasing its presence. Kaposi’s sarcoma, which has now virtually disappeared from populations who have access to therapy, was a huge hurdle to clear when HIV and AIDS was first introduced into the global community.

In recent events 30 years after the discovery of HIV, two babies have been reported to be in HIV remission after the infection was passed to them in utero, and then, treated within hours after the mother gave birth. Such advancements offer hope in a field that must otherwise rely on lifetime HIV management if sufferers are to live normal, active lives safeguarded from outside infection from third-party diseases. Moreover, these advancements support the contention that early HIV diagnosis, treatment, and intervention could not only curtail the spread of the disease, but also its virulence and progression into full-blown AIDS. It is these continuing advancements by medical experts and researchers that provide hope for the future and bring the global community closer to a vaccine, and hopefully, an eventual cure for the deadly epidemic that has claimed 30 million lives worldwide and continues to affect millions of lives each day.

Opinion By Leigh Haugh

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