Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has been a major global health concern since the 1980s. HIV still infects about 2.5 million people every year. Meanwhile, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) continues to kill almost 12 million people a year.

However, HIV infection rates have gone down in some parts of the world. And many people with HIV infections are living long and healthy lives. What’s behind this good news?

Research, education and medication have all helped. But viruses also evolve over time, and HIV may be becoming less virulent. This means that HIV infections are less likely to lead to AIDS. But even if the virus is becoming less virulent, testing and research need to continue.

Antiretroviral Medications

HIV is a virus, and viruses depend on their host for survival. When HIV infects a human, that person becomes the host.

Retroviruses like HIV are viruses that integrate their own DNA into the DNA of the host’s immune cells. Once it has inserted its DNA, HIV can use those cells to replicate itself. The best way to prevent HIV infection is to eliminate the virus before it gets to that step.

New medicines that do just that have played a big role in reducing the number of HIV infections that lead to AIDS. Scientists have developed drugs that inhibit reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that lets HIV to convert its RNA into DNA. Because these medications fight retroviruses, they’re called antiretroviral medications.

Is HIV getting weaker on its own?

A group of British researchers think it’s possible that HIV is becoming milder as it adapts to the human immune system. Viruses sometimes become less virulent because that keeps their host alive and relatively healthy. After all, if it kills its host, the virus itself won’t be able to reproduce. And if it can’t reproduce, it won’t survive!

Staying Safe

Today, doctors recommend HIV testing for people who are at higher risk of being infected. Examples include people who have had unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with multiple people, and people who have shared needles. A blood test can determine if a someone has HIV.

But if HIV is really becoming less virulent, will people eventually stop getting tested for HIV? This could become a major public health issue. After all, HIV is still a virus that can be transmitted between people. And while HIV infections today don’t always necessarily lead to AIDS, HIV-positive people can still develop complications from other infections.

Ongoing testing is therefore important for tracking HIV and making sure people who are infected get the treatment they need. If you are sexually active or at higher risk of being infected for any reason, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should get tested. Symptoms of an HIV infection can take months or even years to show up. Better to be safe than sorry!

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As efforts to eliminate HIV continue, scientists are increasingly using a multidisciplinary approach. Biologists, biochemists, medical anthropologists, sociologists and research professionals in various other fields are sharing information and working together to fight HIV. This multidisciplinary approach could one day create a world that is HIV-free.

Learn More!

About HIV and AIDS:

Where did HIV come from?
The AIDS Institute

About treatments for HIV and AIDS:

Understanding HIV drug therapies (2015)
L. Khelghatybana

HIV evolving ‘to milder form' (2014)
J. Gallagher, BBC

Timothy Brown is ‘cured’ of HIV (2012)
G. Rajan, CurioCity

About changes in virulence:

Some vaccines support evolution of more-virulent viruses (2015)
B.K. Kennedy, Penn State News

Is HIV-1 evolving to a less virulent form in humans? (2007)
K.K. Ariën, G. Vanham & E.J. Arts, Nature Reviews Microbiology 5
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Krystal Rancourt

I have recently graduated from Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario and starting my master's at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My research experience so far is evaluating predator-prey interactions for the wolverine in the Yukon Territory. In future years, I would like to contribute to conservation efforts towards Big Cat and Small Cat species all over the world. Studies in the winter also fascinate me and less information is collected during this season. I also enjoy reading, writing and hiking. Never let anyone tell you what you dream isn't possible!

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