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

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

Credit: Wellcome Images

HIV/AIDS Treatment Sees Three New Advancements

May 3, 2017

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?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new diagnoses in the U.S. dropped 19 percent between 2005 and 2014. Still, at current diagnosis rates, one in six gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. And progress hasn't been uniform. The rate of diagnoses among gay and bisexual, Latino and African-American men rose significantly during that same period.

There's no cure, and Philip Chan, a physician and HIV researcher at Brown University, says prevention remains a challenge.

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: PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a single pill which, taken consistently on a daily basis, 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 the pill are used to treat HIV. When taken daily prior to exposure, they build up in the body and can kill off the virus upon exposure, preventing full-blown infection.
  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 even stop the transmission of HIV. But some clinicians say they need more time to gather information and formulate an appropriate treatment plan, and they 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 under-served populations and addressing issues that can complicate HIV/AIDS treatment, such as homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

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