Beware of new, dangerous form of HIV from Siberia

Russian researchers recently announced a new subtype of HIV. And it may be the most virulent form yet discovered. Plus, researchers believe it can spread much faster than other subtypes.

Granted, most of us in the U.S. no longer need to fear HIV and AIDS. And no doubt, we do have a better understanding of how it spreads and how to protect against it than we did in the 1980s. But more and more people today, especially sexually active older adults, don’t take the necessary precautions. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 10 percent of new cases each year arise in older adults. That comes to about 5,000 to 6,000 new cases each year.

And this problem could get worse in the coming years. Especially considering how stealthy this newer subtype known as 02_AG/A appears to behave.

Researchers first detected the new subtype in 2006, in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. And in the ensuing years, it spread at an alarming rate. In fact, five years ago, health workers knew of just 2,000 cases of it in Novosibirsk. But by 2012, they had 15,000 new documented cases.

In Siberia, it now accounts for more than half of all new HIV infections. And we now even see it outside of Siberia, in Chechnya and parts of Central Asia.

Ironically, HIV/AIDS rates have been falling worldwide. Central Asia and Eastern Europe remain the only regions on the planet where HIV infections are clearly on the rise. And over half of these new cases reside in Russia.

The United Nations says that sexual transmission and IV drug abuse drive the HIV epidemic. (As they always have, everywhere.) But in a 2012 Fact Sheet, the organization says “lack of funding” also contributes to the problem.

You see, countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia contribute just 15 percent of the funding to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. And external donors, like the U.N., must cover at least 60 percent of the funds.

What does this mean?

It means Eastern Europe and Central Asia don’t pay for the bulk of their own problem. The rest of the world does. (Translation? The U.S. pays the bill.) Why should you have to pick up the tab when these countries don’t support their own effective prevention programs?

In addition, in the 2012 Fact Sheet, the U.N. makes no mention of sexual promiscuity or personal responsibility. Nor does it talk about public health agencies’ unwillingness to impose proven infectious disease control measures for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

These measures include case identification, case tracking, and case isolation. Public health agencies throughout history used these methods to thwart every other epidemic in history, from typhoid fever to smallpox. We even used them for other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. Remember getting that VDRL test when you applied for a marriage license?

Instead of following these proven measures for prevention, we continue to spend billions of dollars each year on partially effective treatments.

In fact, the U.S. spends more on HIV/AIDS research than all but two other chronic diseases. I well remember when HIV/AIDS first came on the scene in the 1980s. Entire floors at the National Institutes of Health emptied out overnight to make way for new HIV/AIDS research.

This left research clinics working on autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE or lupus) closed and forgotten. And it left patients without options. Not surprisingly, the causes of these autoimmune diseases still remain unknown today. And we have very few options for their prevention and treatment.

During the Bush Administration, the U.S. donated $4 billion of expensive HIV medications to Africa. This happened in the midst of the largest U.S. budget deficit to that date. Of course, the U.S. drug companies benefitted. But these treatments hardly “cure” the disease.

In fact, even the most effective HIV anti-viral drugs do not “cure” the infection. They merely control the infection. Or maintain the virus at lower levels. This approach creates millions of people who still have the virus. And it turns them into “living laboratories” that spawn new, resistant strains of the virus. As we now see in Siberia.

This already happened with TB, one of many secondary infections in people who have HIV/AIDS. And this helped lead to the development of new resistant, untreatable strains of TB.

These treatments just can’t substitute for effective, known prevention measures. But governments refuse to use them.

I warned about this problem years ago.

While working at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., I testified that the ineffective political, public health approach to controlling the infection, as well as the limited effectiveness of the drugs, would eventually lead to new generations of virulent subtypes of HIV. As well as the secondary infections that are harbored in AIDS. Just like the ones we are now seeing.

But, according to the UN, it’s our fault for not spending even more.

Bottom line?

If you are a sexually active adult in a new relationship, make sure to use barrier protection. And talk about sexual history with your partner. Remember, more than 10 percent of new cases each year arise in older adults. And that comes to about 5,000 to 6,000 new cases each year.

So, don’t play “Russian roulette” with your health. Play it safe.

Sources:

1. “New ‘virulent’ HIV strain spreading rapidly through Siberia identified by Russian scientists,” www.medicaldaily.com, 10/19/2013

2. “Regional Fact Sheet 2012” www.unaids.org

 


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