A man has reportedly been cured of HIV/AIDS. What does this mean for Africa?
Africa HIV/AIDS statistics
HIV/AIDS statistics in Africa are shocking and quite worrying. In 2011, Sub-saharan Africa alone accounted for an estimated 69% of all people living with HIV/AIDS and 70% of all AIDS deaths. Eastern and Southern Africa is home to 50% of the world's population living with AIDS and continues to be at the core of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. UNICEF approximates that the region has about 48% of the world’s new HIV infections among adults, 55% among children, and 48% of AIDS-related deaths. Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland, has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world (26%), followed by Botswana (23.4%) and Lesotho (23.3%).
South Africa has the largest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world, and Kenya, Mozambique, and Uganda jointly have the fourth-largest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world. The reason HIV transmission rates are so high in Africa is due to lack of HIV/AIDS education, especially amongst youths. Poor policy is also to blame, notably in South Africa where Thabo Mbeki's administration took the word of AIDS denier Peter Duesberg and used it to form HIV/AIDS policies instead of following actual established science and that led to South Africa having the AIDS epidemic it has today.
How the man was cured of HIV/AIDS
This man is actually the second man to be cured of HIV/AIDS, with the first one cured 12 years ago. Scientists have long been trying to replicate results from the Berlin patient (first man cured of HIV/AIDS) and, with the London patient (second man cured of HIV/AIDS), they seem to have succeeded. Both the Berlin patient and the London patient were cured after being given bone marrow transplants. However, the transplants were meant to cure cancer in the patients and not HIV.
In the case of the Berlin patient, a Mr Brown who had leukaemia, the transplants were from a donor with a mutation in a protein called CCR5, which rests on the surface of certain immune cells. H.I.V. uses the protein to enter those cells but cannot latch on to the mutated version. He was given harsh immunosuppressive drugs and was even put in an induced coma at one point. The entire experience almost killed him. Scientists have always wondered whether the massive amount of destruction to his immune system is why Mr Brown was cured and no one else. The London patient proves that such extremes are not necessary for a person to be cured.
The London patient had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and received a bone-marrow transplant from a donor with the CCR5 mutation in May 2016. He also received immunosuppressive drugs, as is the norm after a transplant, but the treatment was much less intense, in line with current standards for transplant patients. He stopped taking ARVs in September 2017. He is the second patient after Mr Brown to remain virus-free for more than a year after stopping ARVs. The transplant had destroyed his cancer without harmful side effects and the transplanted immune cells, now resistant to HIV, seem to have fully replaced his vulnerable cells. Scientists are now tracking 38 people with HIV who have received bone marrow transplants.
What the future looks like for HIV/AIDS treatment
This is of interest to Africa especially due to the HIV/AIDS statistics in the continent. While the transplants cured the two men of HIV/AIDS, it is unlikely that bone-marrow transplants will be a feasible treatment option in the near future. This is because the transplants are risky and have harsh side effects. In addition, they are not affordable to most. However, there are powerful drugs available to control HIV infections, and new novel treatments are also being established. Furthermore, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs are also available. Africa needs to embrace HIV/AIDS education as well as formulate proper, scientifically-accurate HIV/AIDS policies.
Header image credit - VOX