One year after a UC San Francisco research team tested for and administered treatment to nearly 200 adults infected with HIV in Uganda, many showed few signs of having the disease.
According to the research — known as SEARCH, or Sustainable East African Research in Community Health — if testing for the deadly disease became routine and treatment became more immediate, the threat of HIV and AIDS could essentially end.
“If we can diagnose a community and bring in care, and if we can place people in therapy and observe them, this kind of outcome is encouraging,” said Dr. Vivek Jain, an assistant adjunct professor at UCSF’s School of Medicine. “We saw a substantial drop in the population viral levels from 2010 to 2011. These are the building blocks of test-and-treat.”
Researchers tested 2,271 adults in rural Uganda in 2010. Of those, 210 tested positive and half were new diagnoses in the early stages of the disease, said Dr. Gabriel Chamie, an assistant professor at UCSF. Thirty-seven percent of the infected adults had undetectable levels of the virus. All patients were linked with care and treatment.
One year later, the team returned to Africa to follow up with those 210 adults. They found that the treatment program had increased the number of infected adults with little to no trace of the virus from 37 to 55 percent.
This research and other studies were discussed last week at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. The conference brought 25,000 researchers and politicians together to urge the global community to put a renew emphasis on ending the epidemic. Dr. Diane Havlir, the chief of UCSF’s Division of HIV/AIDS at San Francisco General Hospital, co-chaired the conference.
When the conference first started in 1985, many researchers never thought they would utter the term “cure” and “AIDS” in the same sentence. Now that very concept seems possible if the right steps are taken.
With as many as 34 million people globally living with the disease, and as many as 2.7 million new diagnoses each year, researchers hope to reduce that number drastically by increasing universal testing, linking patients to care immediately and giving them treatment early.
Research at the conference also revealed that treating people with HIV early — and before it develops into AIDS — can limit the spread of the disease by as much as 96 percent.
Additionally, a mother passing along HIV to her child can now largely be prevented because researchers now know which treatments and drugs are absorbed by the child both in the womb and during breastfeeding.
Any cure by medication alone may be decades off, but thinking of it that way is one step in the right direction.
Dr. Steven Deeks, a professor of medicine at the Division of HIV/AIDS, said researchers know that some people are immune to HIV while others have it in a more dormant stage, thus treatment also could aim to find those sleeping cells and kill them before they spring to life.
“The drugs we have now are designed to suppress the disease, not eliminate it,” Deeks said. “The side effects are patients take medications for decades. To alter this epidemic we will need the cure.”