Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the number of annual new HIV infections in the United States is actually 40% higher than previously estimated. This means that more than 56,000 Americans are infected with HIV every year despite public education efforts on how to avoid getting infected. Addressing the global HIV/AIDS pandemic is critical, but it’s clear that we need to re-examine our approaches and figure out additional ways to control and curtail the epidemic here in the United States.
At the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH, we stand at the forefront of the nation’s HIV prevention research efforts. One of our goals is to develop new scientific strategies to prevent HIV transmission. We’ve had our share of successes and disappointments, like all areas of science, but we remain optimistic and are committed to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Today, HIV-infected people whose immune systems show signs of deterioration are treated with a combination of powerful AIDS drugs. These life-saving medications have changed HIV infection from a near-certain death sentence to a chronic manageable disease for many. Now, we’re studying whether these same drugs can be used to prevent HIV infection among people who are at high risk of becoming infected—an approach called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP.
Why are we examining this approach, and why do we think this could work? First, taking a drug that is normally used to treat an illness as a way to also prevent the illness has been quite effective with a number of other infectious diseases, including malaria, meningococcal disease, and river blindness. Secondly, taking antiretrovirals at time of childbirth and during breastfeeding has already been shown to successfully prevent HIV-infected mothers from transmitting the virus to their newborns—a major success story in HIV prevention.
However, there are key biological differences in the ways that HIV can be transmitted, so we can’t assume that PrEP will work for all at-risk populations. That’s why clinical trials are needed. Several studies are underway with results expected next year.
The PrEP approach is just one area of HIV prevention research that we are examining. To effectively curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we need a range of safe and effective strategies acceptable to different people in different parts of the world. In upcoming blogs, I’ll look at some of the other areas of HIV prevention research NIAID is conducting.
Want to learn more? Check out: http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/topics/HIVAIDS/.