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Three Advances in HIV/AIDS Treatment

In 1987, AZT was the first drug approved for use in treating HIV/AIDS.
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In 1987, AZT was the first drug approved for use in treating HIV/AIDS.

It’s been thirty years since the first drug was approved to treat HIV/AIDS. That was AZT, in 1987. Since then, anti-retroviral drugs have been helping people live longer, healthier lives after their diagnosis. But just how much has treatment changed?

There's still no cure, and Philip Chan, a physician and HIV researcher at Brown University, says prevention remains a challenge. If current diagnosis rates continue, 1 in 6 gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.

But there have been improvements. For instance, Chan points to the fact that many multi-drug combinations now come in a single-pill form, making daily treatment simpler. Here are three other advances:

  1. A pill to prevent HIV infection: Truvada is a single pill which, taken daily (and consistently), has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to 92 percent. The two medications in Truvada are used to treat HIV. When taken daily prior to exposure, they build up in the body and can kill of HIV upon exposure, preventing full-blown infection.
    At current diagnosis rates, 1 in 6 gay or bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
  2. An at-home HIV test: Research has found that the earlier a person is diagnosed and treated for HIV, the better the outcome. Going to a lab or clinic for bloodwork can be inconvenient and intimidating. A new mouth swab kit eliminates that hurdle, and allows individuals to test at home as frequently as desired. Users should note that the antibodies the test looks for often don't show up until 1-3 months after exposure, and a doctor may want to confirm the diagnosis before treating.
  3. Same-day treatment: A recent study at a health clinic in London found that there were benefits to offering a person HIV treatment as soon as they are diagnosed. Early treatment can help preserve the immune system and stop the transmission of HIV. But some clinicians worry that patients who have just received a life-altering diagnosis may not be ready to commit to treatment right away.

Of course, the holy grail would be a vaccine against HIV. Chan says that's still 10-20 years away, though. In the meantime, he is putting much of his effort into reaching underserved populations and addressing socioeconomic issues - homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse - that can complicate HIV/AIDS treatment.