Seeing Red

First Published – 28 Nov 2006

A disease that is already ravaging populations in places like Africa and India, Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) has the potential to become a widespread epidemic if more people are not educated on how to better prevent and halt its spread. In conjunction with World Aids Day, Dec 1, we look at an important phpect – HIV/Aids treatment.

IN Singapore, 200 to 300 new cases of HIV/Aids are reported annually, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health.

There are now close to 3,000 reported cases of the disease, with the most common form of transmission being through sexual intercourse. Of this number, about 89 per cent are men and 11 per cent women. The human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, is a virus that damages a person’s immune system leaving him susceptible to infections.

Dr Arlene Chua, consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine at the National University Hospital, said: “Without treatment, the natural history of HIV is that it progresses to Aids, which is the advanced stage of HIV and is diagnosed clinically by a doctor as well as by laboratory tests.”

People with Aids are more prone to developing infections and certain cancers that generally do not affect healthy individuals. More importantly, people who are infected with the virus are mostly unaware of their condition as they remain asymptomatic until the disease develops into fullblown Aids. This can occur anywhere from approximately eight to 10 years.

Although doctors have yet to find a cure for the disease, there is good news on the treatment front for patients who have not responded well to the drugs currently available.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have recently achieved a breakthrough in a study on gene therapy. It involved removing infection fighting ‘T-cells’ from a HIV patient, and inserting a gene into the cells to stop the virus from reproducing. These adapted cells were then multiplied and returned into the patient’s system.

The clinical trial, led by Carl June and Bruce Levine, tested the new therapy on five HIV patients who were not responding to conventional medicines. Four showed signs of improvement, without experiencing any serious side effects.

The HIV viral load of one of the participants codenamed “Subject #2”, also fell from a high of 54,100 to 1,930 after three years on the trial. The supply of infection-fighting T-cells in his body also increased in number.

The success of this therapy could mark a turning point in reducing the total number of HIV/Aids fatalities, as patients for whom conventional drugs are ineffective in stabilising their condition, have a greater likelihood of dying from the disease. But more needs to be done by way of refining various phpects of this therapy to determine its feasibility as a viable drug for future HIV treatment.

In the interim before a vaccine or cure is developed, current treatments for HIV have continued to prove successful in keeping the virus in check.

Dr Chua said: “Effective treatment for HIV has been available for at least 10 years. This treatment comprises a combination of drugs that aim to control the virus from multiplying in the body.”

This in turn prevents further damage to the immune system of the sufferer, at the same time halting the progress of HIV to Aids. The good news is that the treatments available are also effective for patients who are diagnosed with Aids, restoring functioning to their immune systems.

Hence the importance of people coming forward to seek treatment early, instead of hiding under the social stigma and shame that the disease is often associated with. With the proper medications, a person infected with HIV will still be able to live a normal life and function as well as other healthy individuals within society.

Although HIV is a communicable disease, it is primarily transmitted through exposure to contaminated bodily fluids like the blood or semen.

It might be passed on by a mother to her baby during childbirth or through breastfeeding, or by sharing needles with an infected person.

It is, however, not transmitted by hand holding, hugging, casual kissing or by insect bites, added Dr Chua.

– TODAY, Joanne Yap