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AIDS breakthrough gets cautious optimism

By Staff | Jul 10, 2010

New antibodies capable of destroying more than 90 percent of the HIV virus were discovered this week, and even though this discovery could be the kick start researchers need to find a cure, local experts are cautious about getting too excited.
A team of researchers led by John Mascola from the U.S. National Institutes of Health identified two proteins which block the HIV virus from penetrating a healthy cell, reported the Associated Press on Thursday.
Finding a cure for the virus has eluded researchers for more than two decades because HIV is constantly mutating. But, the antibodies recently identified by Mascola attack a part of the virus that is relatively unchanging.
“HIV tends to mutate and build up immunities to drugs,” said Dan Mitton, director of education and prevention for the Island Coast AIDS Network in Fort Myers. “If you don’t take it accurately 95 percent of the time you build up an immunity and you can’t take that drug anymore.”
He said missing as few as one or two pills each month could make a drug ineffective, forcing a patient to switch to another type. And Mitton said there aren’t many different types of HIV/AIDS drugs on the market.
Although he described the identification of the antibodies as a “jumpstart to research,” he cautioned those affected by the virus not to get too excited.
“It is exciting because it is something that may have an affect. We won’t have a vaccine now or anytime soon, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Mitton. “I caution people not to get too excited because it is the first step.”
An estimated 1,106,400 people living in the United States have the HIV infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 21 percent of that population is undiagnosed. Mitton said there are approximately 3,000 people living with the virus in Lee County.
Statewide, the statistics indicate that 1 out of every 123 men and 1 out of every 296 women are also living with HIV/AIDS.
The identification of the new antibodies, as well as a September report which neutralized three-quarters of the virus, is good news for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone else should stop being vigilant in terms of protection and prevention. Even if a vaccine is synthesized tomorrow, it won’t help people already living with the virus, said Mitton.
“Everyone who gets a vaccine already has to be negative,” he said. “It won’t help people with the virus. So everyone has to be safe from now until we get a vaccine.”
Higher incidents of infection in Lee County are being identified in teenagers, adults in their early 20s and adults over the age of 50. Mitton said the higher infection rates are a result of these groups not paying attention.
Teenagers, especially, feel they are safe with having unprotected sex with multiple partners because they are engaging in alternative sexual behavior.
The federal government announced Friday that funding is being reallocated to assist people living with HIV/AIDS.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is setting aside $25 million to fund AIDS Drug Assistance Programs and to eliminate waiting lists within the program. Waiting lists to receive HIV/AIDS drugs under ADAP have reportedly been a result of the economy and budget shortfalls.
Long waiting lists were also exacerbated by a higher unemployment rate in parts of Florida, and therefore more of a need by residents.
This reallocation is part of the recent health care reform under the Affordable Care Act.
The federal government also created a Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan for people who have been without health insurance for six months or longer. Some patients with HIV or AIDS have historically been denied coverage because of what the insurance company deemed a pre-existing condition.
By 2014 no insurance company will be allowed to deny someone for a pre-existing condition.