Worldwide, an estimated 33.4 million people are currently living with HIV, and a recent WHO report indicates that 68 percent of these individuals live in sub-Saharan Africa. Though HIV is prevalent in the developing world, infection rates in the United States continue to be a major health concern. Reports indicate that at the end of 2006, an estimated 1.1 million people were living with HIV in the U.S. and these figures have continued to grow. Though education, testing, and treatment efforts have increased worldwide, ensuring that all individuals with HIV are aware of their status and have access to life-saving medications, remains an enormous challenge.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first recognized in 1981. The virus destroys specific cells that are imperative to the functioning of an individual’s immune system known as CD4+ T cells. An individual’s HIV status can be determined by administering an antibody test, which detects the substances that the body produces in response to HIV infection. If an individual with HIV does not receive treatment, their condition will progress to the point at which they will be diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). A healthy individual has a CD4 count of more than 500 cells per cubic millimeter (mm3) of blood, but when an individual’s CD4 count is below 200 mm3, they are diagnosed as having AIDS.
Though anyone can contract HIV, there are certain behaviors known to increase the risk, including promiscuous and/or unprotected sexual contact, using intravenous drugs, homosexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse with individuals who have been incarcerated. According to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wife of the President of France and Global Fund’s Ambassador for Protecting Women and Children Against AIDS, children born to mothers with HIV are also at an increased risk, and over 400,000 babies are born with HIV each year. New study findings also suggest that the risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV doubles during pregnancy, but the reason for this increase has not yet been identified. Individuals with HIV can suppress the virus and stop its progression through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), which consists of the use of at least three antiretroviral (ARV) medications. Reports indicate that the United States now supports more than 2.5 million individuals receiving ART, the WHO estimates that at least 9.7 million people, primarily in low- and middle-income nations, are in need of these lifesaving medications.
In the hopes of identifying more effective treatment options, research is ongoing to explore how HIV infection progresses in the body. Though it is no longer used following the eradication of smallpox, experts have found that the smallpox vaccine may interfere with how HIV replicates. Additionally, tests have been conducted using experimental vaginal gels containing antiretroviral elements, and they have been seen to reduce transmission of a virus closely related to HIV in monkeys. Researchers have also identified a bacterium found in the human throat which secretes a toxin that has been found to enable antibodies to destroy viral particles in the blood.
Though promising, it remains to be seen if this research will yield any substantial advancement towards finding a cure for HIV. Until a cure is found, expanding existing treatment options and ensuring the provision of testing and education programs are essential to shunting the spread of the virus.