For many years after the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s, being HIV-positive was considered a death sentence. Many of those who discovered they had the virus – which slowly attacks the immune system – were shunned, unfairly associated with immoral behaviour, and considered too "contagious" to be around.
Today, attitudes towards those who are HIV-positive have changed for the better, in no small part due to the incredible medical advances that have been made.
Currently, an HIV-positive person can expect to live a long and healthy life, provided they are diagnosed early enough, follow a healthy lifestyle and take the recommended antiretroviral medicines. For this reason, it’s now relatively uncommon for an HIV-positive person to develop AIDS, the final stage of infection where the immune system becomes totally compromised.
Of course, while many advances have been made with HIV treatment, a full cure still eludes scientists. However, recent research could play a hugely important role in the development of a working vaccine.
New Antibody Research
According to two new studies published in Science Translational Medicine, antibodies could be the key to the HIV vaccine. Antibodies are proteins created by the immune system and sent out whenever antigens (harmful bacteria or viruses) enter the body. Antibodies identify and bind to a specific type of antigen; this allows the immune system to identify the "intruder" and destroy it. Researchers have long stressed the importance of antibodies in the fight against HIV; these new studies have revealed that antibodies could be even more important than first thought.
One of the studies saw scientists create a special type of antibody that seeks out hidden HIV cells. When cultured together with an "HIV-killer" cell, these antibodies proved effective in destroying previously hidden cells of the virus.
The second study discovered three different antibodies that have a "neutralising" effect on HIV. It's hoped that this means that they can be administered to HIV-positive patients to prevent the virus from progressing.
With studies like this going on all the time, it is possible that we will see an HIV vaccine within the next decade. Currently, however, there are many treatments available to keep HIV infection properly managed and under control. To find out more, read on.
Diagnosing, Treating & Preventing HIV
The first thing to know about HIV is that it is spread through bodily fluids (semen, vaginal and anal fluid, blood and breast milk). The most common mode of transmission is unprotected vaginal or anal sex.
HIV can also be spread in the following ways:
- sharing drug needles or other injecting equipment
- from mother to baby before or during birth
- from mother to baby when breastfeeding
The instance involving mother and baby can be controlled so the risk is higher where the mother is infected and it is not known.
If you think you might have been exposed to the virus, or if you fall into an at-risk group (men who have sex with men, black African men and women), you should get tested for HIV.
There are different types of HIV test available – normally you will have your blood taken at a clinic and sent away for testing. Order a home test kit through The STI Clinic and you can take a blood sample at home and return it to our lab for testing; our test can detect HIV as early as 10 days after exposure but a negative result is not considered conclusive until 6 weeks after the point of potential infection.
If you think you have been infected in the past 72 hours, you should talk to a doctor about getting post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP); an emergency treatment that can prevent infection from setting in.
For people who are diagnosed with HIV, the treatment programme will involve regular blood tests to monitor the amount of virus in your system, and how healthy your immune system is. At a certain point, you will start treatment with antiretroviral medicines, which work by preventing the virus from multiplying.
If you’re concerned about contracting HIV, make sure you always use condoms when having sex with someone who may be infected, and never share needles. If your partner is HIV-positive, it is possible to have safe sex – consult the resources available at Terence Higgins Trust to learn more.