Another milestone on the road to curing HIV is worth celebrating

Seeing a third person cured of HIV is monumental for the thousands of people who participated in medical trials in hopes of one day finding a cure.

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President Biden Commemorates World AIDS Day

A red ribbon is displayed on the North Portico of the White House to recognize World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, 2021.

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It’s been 40 years since five men were first diagnosed with AIDS in June 1981, and looking back through that history it’s easy to see more failures than successes in the fight against the disease.

People living with HIV and AIDS saw it in the initial response that included poorly chosen medical terminology, followed by shameful acts of discrimination.

But trailblazing advocates and dedicated scientists also brought bright moments of hope. There’s now instant at-home HIV testing, so people can be aware of their status. And those living with HIV and AIDS also have access to modern treatment and medication that allows them to live into their 60s and beyond — something unheard of at the beginning of the epidemic.

Now comes the latest accomplishment, one that represents a huge step forward for a large group of people living with HIV/AIDS: A potential cure.

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In February, scientists announced that a mixed-race woman was the third person in history to be cured of HIV through a method that could cure more people of diverse racial backgrounds.

It’s a monumental achievement for the thousands of people who took a chance, trusted science and participated in medical trials in hopes of one day finding a cure for a disease that was once a death sentence.

It’s also a reminder that trusting in science, not conspiracists and quacks doing “research” via Google — is the best bet when it comes to beating a life-threatening virus.

A long road

The good news was announced by researchers in February at the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver. It’s a big contrast from how the subject of HIV and AIDS was handled initially.

When the epidemic first began, the scientific community began calling the then-unknown disease a “gay cancer,” followed by the official medical term GRID — “gay-related immune deficiency.” The terminology, and the erroneous assumption that the virus could only target gay men, would have long-lasting consequences for heterosexual men, women, children, hemophiliacs and people who used drugs via injection.

The labels led to discrimination like that experienced by Ryan White — a teenager who was given six months to live at the time of his diagnosis — when he was denied entry to his middle school in Indiana in August 1985. White had contracted AIDS through contaminated blood products used to treat his hemophilia.

White died at 18, a month before his high school graduation. He is credited with putting a human face on HIV and became an international spokesperson against HIV and AIDS stigmas.

Months after White’s death, then-President Ronald Reagan publicly mentioned AIDS for the first time. Congress also passed the Ryan CARE Act, which provided more than $2 billion to help develop and maintain an affordable and accessible system of diagnosis and treatment for those most at risk of HIV and AIDS.

“Ryan White is not alive to celebrate his 50th birthday,” advocacy organization RiseUpToHIV said in a statement last December. “But thousands of people living with HIV crossed the half-century mark recently. They might not realize it, but most of them have been helped in some way by Ryan.”

In 2022, news of the third person cured of HIV — significantly, a woman of mixed-race — brings another dose of hope.

The first two men who were cured received bone marrow transplants from donors who carried a mutation that blocks HIV. Most of the 20,000 donors who have the valuable mutation are of Caucasian origin.

The third patient, who also had leukemia, received umbilical cord blood, which is more widely available than adult stem cells found in bone marrow transplants and does not need to be matched as closely to the recipient. The partial match between donor and recipient could cure dozens who live with both HIV and cancer.

While doctors and researchers don’t see this new method becoming common, the sex and racial background of this third case paves the way toward developing a cure for HIV.

“The fact that she’s mixed race, and that she’s a woman, that is really important scientifically and really important in terms of the community impact,” as Dr. Steven Deeks, an AIDS expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times. Deeks was not involved in the research.

Scientists might still have a long way to go, but major achievements like this one are worth celebrating on the road to beating HIV and AIDS.

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