With an estimated 35 million people infected with HIV worldwide, public health officials have begun to look beyond developing a vaccine to the stop the epidemic.
By establishing universal, voluntary HIV screening programs and immediate antiviral treatments for individuals infected in high-risk regions, Brian Williams, a research fellow at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis, said that global public health officials could eradicate HIV/AIDS in 40 years, and stop HIV infections in as soon as five years.
Speaking Saturday at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego, Williams said that the advances in antirviral treatments have been successful at increasing the life expectancy of someone infected with HIV. But as their life expectancy increases, so does the potential that they can infect someone else.
By testing people in high-risk regions and immediately putting the patients on medications that reduce their viral-loads, Williams said that public health officials could "render HIV-infected people not infectious."
"We've been using drugs to save lives, but not stop the infection," he said, adding that proper treatments makes someone 25 times less infectious. "It's time to look beyond that."
Kenneth H. Meyer, professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, said that public health officials have been moderately successful in getting people onto anti-viral treatments. But as people live longer, the trend of more new infections than deaths will continue, especially in high-risk regions.
He cited statistics that while the number of HIV- infected people in the United States is 1 in 300, it's much higher in hot spots like Washington, D.C., where the prevalence is 1 in 15 people. He added that 20-25% of HIV-infected people in the United States are unaware of their disease.
"The need to treat people with antivirals to improve their life and reduce their ability to infect others will clearly rise," he said. "The question is, can we keep up?"
Dennis Burton, a professor of immunology and microbial science at Scripps Research Institute, said that antiviral prevention is "incredibly important," but scientists should continue to seek a vaccine.
"There have been exciting advances towards HIV vaccine development," said Burton, adding that vaccines and anti-viral treatments are not polar opposites. He added that if scientists are able to create a vaccine, "it will mean great strides for vaccine development that will help our efforts to address the next disease."
Williams said that while universal testing and antiviral treatments would require start-up capital and operational research, "the only thing more expensive than this plan, for health care costs and deaths, is doing nothing."