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1st December 2015

Four game changers in the battle against HIV/AIDS

We’ve come a long way since the first cases of HIV/AIDS were reported over 30 years ago, causing widespread panic, a lot of questions and few answers.

Back then, by the time patients were diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, it was usually too late. Even those who got the ‘all clear’ likely spent the most harrowing weeks of their lives waiting for the results. Fast forward to today, and not only can we get test results within minutes, but we see young people being diagnosed early and living full lives ‒ thanks to scientific advances ranging from rapid HIV diagnostics (tests) to antiretroviral medications.

World AIDS Day on December 1st each year is a reminder, however, that there’s room for improvement as there’s still no cure. It’s estimated that around 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV and over 20% don’t even know they have it. The reasons for going untested can vary. In the developing world patients may not have access to the tests, while in developed countries people may just be too embarrassed to get tested.

Major breakthroughs mean that getting diagnosed can often be as easy as taking a pregnancy test. Here are four innovations in medical technology that could be game changers in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

1) The only HIV self test in Europe is available in the UK and allows people to determine their HIV status in the comfort of their own home. It requires a tiny drop of blood and is over 99% accurate from three months after suspected exposure to the virus. It works by identifying antibodies produced by the virus, rather than looking for the virus itself. It’s simple to use and provides a clear and easy-to-read indication of HIV status in just 15 minutes. In the US there are similar home tests that involve swabbing the inside of your cheek

2) Another diagnostic that’s based on a blood test can identify whether a person has HIV-1 or HIV-2. Being able to differentiate between the two types of HIV is important for treatment, as they exhibit the same symptoms but progress at different rates. Because the test can identify HIV antigen, a part of the virus that shows up 2-4 weeks after infection, treatment can begin early and the patient can avoid infecting others sooner.

3) A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test identifies HIV’s genetic material and can detect the virus just a few days after infection. This is particularly useful for diagnosing people who are showing signs of acute infection (e.g. flu-like symptoms following a high-risk sexual encounter or needle sharing) as it can catch HIV even earlier than the antigen-detecting test. It can also give doctors information about the patient’s viral load, or how much of the virus is in their system, which is useful in showing how well medications are controlling the virus. Results are available within a few hours.

4) An HIV test that could be especially revolutionary for tackling HIV/AIDS in low-income countries is the brainchild of 16-year-old Canadian high school student Nicole Ticea. What’s special about this pregnancy-type test (besides the fact that it’s been developed by a teenage genius) is that it’s capable of diagnosing HIV in babies under the age of 18 months, which can be trickier than diagnosing adults. It can also detect HIV in adults who’ve only been infected for three months. The disposable device is inexpensive, it doesn’t require electricity and it gives results in under an hour.

“The therapeutic and preventive potential of HIV treatment cannot be realised without robust diagnostics,” says the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which has launched a global Diagnostics Access Initiative to achieve the “90-90-90” treatment target by 2020. The goal is that by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status; 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression (when a person’s viral load is undetectable).

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