In some ways HIV is a stealth virus. It is an expert at hiding from the body’s immune system, which can make it difficult to detect and treat. This week groundbreaking research was published by UCL (University College London) which has discovered that HIV uses an ‘invisibility cloak’ to disguise itself meaning that it can be present in human (white blood) cells and replicate itself without triggering the immune system (see information here). Scientists have managed to identify the ‘invisibility cloak’ that HIV uses to hide itself – something which has puzzled scientists for years. They have found out that this shield consists of two molecules that allow HIV to hide itself from the body’s immune system. Through a better understanding of how the HIV virus resists detection it is hoped that more effective HIV treatment can be discovered (see more info here). For example, it is thought that targeting the molecules instead of the HIV virus itself with treatment reduces the chance of treatment resistance and could greatly improve treatment outcomes. That said, HIV treatment has already progressed rapidly in the last two decades and HIV is definitely not the death sentence it once was. Indeed, most people who are HIV positive live relatively healthy lives until their 60s or 70s.
Image of HIV virus – nature.com
For the meantime, the full potential of the ‘invisibility cloak’ findings are yet to be realised and current HIV treatment can be thought of as consisting of two main components – PEP and ARV. But, what are they and when would you take them?
PEP: PEP is taken by individuals who are HIV negative and who have put themselves at high risk of seroconverting (becoming HIV positive). It is a month long course of medication which needs to be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, or other high risk behaviour (the sooner the better, though). It can be obtained from any sexual health clinic or any accident and emergency (casualty) department. In the UK it is completely free and the healthcare worker would assess risk level before making a decision about whether to prescribe PEP. It can have some side effects, such as headaches, nightmares and vomiting., however it can be extremely effective if taken quickly. See NHS website for more detailed information on PEP.
ARV: Anti-retroviral drugs are taken by those are HIV positive and need to take medication (quite often immediately after infection no treatment is needed). The aim of the medication is to reduce the amount of HIV in the blood and delay HIV related illnesses. Usually it comprises of 3+ drugs, although this can be combined into a single pill, and the exact combination is specific to the individual. ARV must be taken consistently – the same time, everyday – in order to be effective. As said above, if those that are on medication are compliant with their treatment they can live happy, healthy lives and have a life expectancy not dissimilar to those that are HIV negative. There’s more detailed info on the NHS website here.
What are your views on HIV treatment? Have you been on treatment or know somebody that has, what was their experience?
The views in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the GMI partnership. The GMI partnership offer free counselling, mentoring and one-to-one sessions for gay and bisexual men in London. For more information see