We may be the closest to a cure right now with current treatment of HIV. Many people forget how far we’ve progressed since the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, but with proper treatment, HIV-positive people can live long and generally healthy lives.
“I would emphasize that with early use of antiretroviral therapy, people’s life span is normal or near normal,” says Dr. Robert Grant, chief medical officer of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Even those who do not find out their positive status until years after infection can live long lives with treatment.
“I think the therapies are more safe, more convenient than they’ve ever been in the past. I think that they do prolong life, they render people uninfectious…. And in some ways I think it’s better than a cure,” Grant says, noting that so far only one person, Timothy Brown (dubbed the “Berlin patient” by researchers) has been cured of HIV. In other cases where patients were thought to be cured, the virus came back without warning.
“I think we have to ask ourselves what would we rather be, on therapy and confident that we are doing what we can to restore our immune system and render ourselves uninfectious so that we’re safe for our partners, or do we want to attempt a cure and then stop therapy but then never really know how long we’re going to last until the virus comes back?” Grant says.
We should not give up on cure research, he says. There have been many advances toward antibody injections and other therapies that may lead to a cure or a vaccine. In addition to treatments, condoms and PrEP can be used to prevent the spread of HIV. And several organizations and civic leaders are pushing either for a cure or vaccine (like amfAR’s Countdown to a Cure, which aims for a cure by 2020) and a reduction of AIDS cases to less than 1,000 (leaders in New York and San Francisco).
“So there’s just a lot of ways to prevent HIV, and I think that everyone can find something attractive for them to use,” says Grant. “So I wouldn’t stay in bed waiting for a vaccine or something. There’s something that everyone can do now — they have just have to choose which way to prevent, to keep themselves free of HIV.”
While a cure and vaccine are worthwhile goals and would be huge improvements, experts note that we should be very encouraged by the progress made so far in just treating the disease. “I think sometimes we lose track of what we can do waiting for that next finding around the corner [when] we can end this epidemic now,” says Grant. “The other thing I would say is we have not found a cure for is HIV stigma. That requires some concerted action and some novel ideas.”