Cure For HIV/AIDS
To put it very simply, no, there isn’t. There are treatments available which help keep the virus in check, and there are treatments for the opportunistic infections, but there is no cure for HIV. They may discover a cure someday, but with current treatments, no one has ever been, nor will be, cured. Current treatments attack the virus itself, which is effective in keeping it under control; however, will not lead to seroreversion (the idea of going from HIV positive to HIV negative). This is because the virus, when presented with the hostile conditions the drugs cause for it, will hide in organs, such as the lymph nodes, which the drugs cannot reach. To cure a person, they will need to develop a treatment that will cause the immune system to fight off the disease itself, which they have been unable to do so far.
There currently is no vaccine for HIV. There are many promising ones being tested, which may be available within the next few years, or may never be available. Even then, they may not be 100% effective. For now, safer sex and not sharing needles is the only way to protect yourself.
The reason they have been unable to develop a vaccine has to do with the tricky way this virus works. It frequently mutates, so a vaccine would have to work against all strains of the virus. There are currently about ten known subtypes of HIV-1 and possibly many more than that. Also, most vaccines require a dead or weakened version of the virus to work. They tried this when HIV was first discovered, and it consistently failed. The body either wouldn’t produce the desired immune response and/or the subject developed the disease. Newer attempts at a vaccine take a part of the virus and combine it with a man-made strain of DNA that does show much more promise.
Another problem with developing a vaccine is that not a lot of money has been dumped into vaccine research compared to other HIV/AIDS research (only about 5% goes towards vaccine research). This is because it is believed that a vaccine may not be possible, and that even if it is, it would be too expensive to mass produce. This concept has been reevaluated in the past few years given that it is becoming apparent that education alone is not going to stop the spread of this disease, particularly in underdeveloped countries.
There is currently one vaccine being tested on humans, but the efficacy (how well it works) of that vaccine is still unknown. There are a large number of other vaccines that are still in the animal testing phase, many of which are showing great promise, but experts don’t expect a vaccine to be widely used for a few years at least.
There are also two different types of vaccines that they are trying to develop. One vaccine would prevent a person who doesn’t have the disease from getting it. The other is for people already infected to help battle the disease. It is believed that when a vaccine finally is created, it would probably not only stop someone from becoming infected, it would also cause an infected person not to spread it to someone else.
While there is encouraging work being done in vaccine research, we should probably not hold our hopes up too high quite yet. They have been trying to develop a vaccine since the virus was first discovered, and haven’t been successful yet.
The drug cocktail, or HAART (Highly Active Antiviral Therapy), is a combination of drugs that are used to keep the virus in check. The cocktail usually includes two or three anti-viral drugs, such as AZT and/or protease inhibitors. These drugs have many side-effects, drug interaction problems and are very expensive. They require strict adherence to be effective, and even then you may have a resistant strain. They are not like taking a multi-vitamin every day. You usually have to take around 20 pills a day, at very specific intervals. In many people, these drugs can control the virus, and it’s believed the earlier you start, the better your chances; however, there is a great deal of debate as to when to start treatment. Some say that starting treatment early will help keep the virus under better control, where others say that starting too early has negative effects as well. If you start too early, your body may never learn how to fight the disease itself, which means if you stopped the drugs, the disease could progress much faster. Also, if you start early, and the virus becomes resistant to the drugs, your treatment options will be limited earlier than it may have been if you started treatment later. They do believe the cocktail may eventually cure the person, but they estimate it would take 50 to 60 years of treatment for that to happen.
A drug holiday is a relatively new concept that is being tested out now. The idea is to take breaks in the treatment to see if the body can keep the virus in check by itself. Since this is such a new concept, it is hard to say how effective it will be, but from what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like it works very well.
Holistic medicine, such as acupuncture and massage, has not been proven to be very effective in treating HIV, although it does have other benefits, such as making the person feel better. Many people use the argument that the mind is powerful enough that if you believe it enough, you can cure yourself of anything. So far, this hasn’t happened with HIV. No one has “thought” themselves cured. It is recommended that if you are positive and wish to explore holistic methods, you do that in addition to, not in lieu of, following more conventional treatment options.
There is an additional type of treatment called Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), also called the “morning after pill.” This is a 6 week treatment of the cocktail drugs beginning within 72 hours of a definite exposure to the virus, although the sooner you start, the better. In most people (about 75%), this prevents the person from ever being infected. It is most commonly used for healthcare workers who have occupational exposures (i.e. accidental needle sticks), but has started to be used, experimentally, for the general population. If you have had a DEFINITE exposure or a highly possible exposure (such as a rape victim), and are interested in trying this approach, by all means do so. However, there is no guarantee you ever had the virus in the first place, so you may be taking drugs for no reason; it doesn’t work for all people; confidentiality is not included; and it is not a substitute for practicing safer sex.
I have also read recommendations for serodiscordant couples (one is positive, the other negative) that you keep a few days supply of PEP around, just in case. This would be beneficial if something unforeseen happens, such as condom breakage.