Major news networks around the globe this week broke the story that a second HIV-positive patient appears to have been “functionally cured” of HIV.
In a welcome piece of good news, the world learned that an anonymous individual, known simply as “the London patient” has experienced a year and a half of sustained remission of the HIV virus without medication. The patient entered into remission after receiving a bone marrow transplant from someone naturally resistant to HIV infection. This is the second functional cure of HIV of its kind. The first such case occurred in 2007.
Many have been cheering this victory in the fight against HIV, as noted by Dan Rather in a particularly magnificent tweet reaffirming the value of science. This successful treatment of HIV does indeed deserve to be celebrated. But it also provides us with an occasion to point out all the other less flashy, but still life-changing, scientific and medical breakthroughs that have been made in HIV treatment.
In the 1980s, an HIV diagnosis was a functional death sentence. Thirty-five years later, HIV is now a manageable chronic condition. Twenty-five years ago, those diagnosed with AIDS had an average remaining life expectancy of only 18 months. Now, life expectancy among HIV-infected adults who receive the proper treatment is catching back up to the life expectancy of uninfected adults. In addition, recent studies have found that those on treatment who are able to achieve very low levels of the virus in the blood pose no risk of transmitting HIV to others, even when engaging in traditionally more risky activities like unprotected vaginal or anal sex.
This transformation in our ability to treat HIV, and to limit its spread, is a stunning achievement of modern medicine – and equally worthy of celebration. Yet, these everyday miracles of science rarely make headlines.
Instead, understanding of the progress that has been made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS remains abysmally low. For example, a study covering understanding of HIV/AIDS by adults in the United States conducted in 2013 and 2014 revealed that only roughly 1 in 5 adults were aware of HIV treatment as a way to prevent spread of the virus.
Our cultural ignorance of HIV/AIDS may help explain the variety of outdated draconian criminal laws still in place today in the majority of U.S. states, which contribute to fear and stigmatization around HIV. In many states these laws still allow the state to punish HIV-positive people for engaging in activities that constitute no — or negligible — risk, such as biting and spitting.
Is the fact that HIV has been functionally cured twice amazing? Yes, absolutely. Like freaking completely amazing. But nearly 37 million people are still living with HIV/AIDS around the world.
The needs and stories of those 37 million are every bit as important as the two individuals who have been functionally cured. We ought to celebrate such cures. But we also need to understand and rally behind those who still have the disease.
We can and ought to do better. Let’s celebrate today, and then get to work every day going forward.
Mark Satta is a 2018-2019 Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellow.