We’ve come a long way since the first identification of the HIV retrovirus in 1983. Thirty-five years of research have given us the tools to treat and reliably prevent the transmission of HIV, so that we are now seeing the lowest rates of new diagnoses in Australia since the start of the AIDS epidemic. Strategies like PEP, PrEP, undetectable viral load and condom use have proved to be incredibly effective at helping to prevent the spread of the virus.
The UN has set a goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030. A significant part of this is the 90-90-90 target, which aims by 2020 to have 90 per cent of people living with HIV knowing their status, 90 per cent of positively diagnosed people on treatment, and 90 per cent of people on treatment achieving viral suppression. It’s an ambitious target, but Australia is well on the way there, partly thanks to medical innovations like rapid testing, PEP, PrEP and undetectable viral load — so much so that we’ve committed to a virtual elimination of new HIV transmissions in Australia by 2020.
“…we are now seeing the lowest rates of new diagnoses in Australia since the start of the AIDS epidemic.”
So far, prevention and treatment are effectively slowing the spread of HIV. The combination of condom use and biomedical strategies (like PEP, PrEP and maintaining an undetectable viral load through treatment) has brought the possibility of ending HIV transmissions within reach for Australia and many other countries. While there are still many places where these strategies are not available or affordable for most people, current efforts by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) are helping to bridge the gaps. Our increased understanding of the virus and the global effort to develop these strategies over the last few decades has made progress nobody thought possible at the start of the epidemic.
“Prevention, testing and treatment are already working to reduce the number of new acquisitions every year.”
But what would it take to eradicate HIV in the medical sense, for everyone? What about a cure? Can we ever expect to see HIV eliminated completely?
We may be edging closer to a ‘yes’. Hard-working researchers at Sydney’s Westmead Institute for Medical Research have recently found a piece of key information in the search for a cure: where the virus ‘hides’ during the time it is suppressed.
Current HIV treatment focuses on maintaining an undetectable viral load (UVL), with a combination of constant monitoring and medication. But HIV can rebound within a matter of weeks if treatment stops, because a small amount lies dormant in ‘reservoirs’ within the body indefinitely. These reservoirs of latent virus have been identified as the most significant barrier to a cure because they have — until now — remained hidden.
“Condoms, PrEP, PEP and maintaining an undetectable viral load are still reliable ways to protect yourself and your partner,”
Until the cure is a reality, there are lots of ways to stay healthy and help stop the spread of HIV. Prevention, testing and treatment are already working to reduce the number of new acquisitions every year. Condoms, PrEP, PEP and maintaining an undetectable viral load are still reliable ways to protect yourself and your partner, and have helped us reach the point where we can even talk about eradicating HIV, so keep up the good work!
And seriously — buy a drink for a scientist.