This could really be happening. Just weeks after a baby girl was functionally cured of the HIV virus, early treatment has been found to put HIV into seemingly permanent remission in 14 adults. It's breathtaking progress in the fight against HIV.
The 14 patients were part of a group of 70 examined at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. They all began receiving anti-retroviral (ARV) medications between 35 days and 10 weeks of contracting the virus. The patients then stayed on the drugs for an average of three years, but all eventually stopped. ARV drugs can keep HIV in check, but can't totally remove it from your system. And typically, when you stop taking the drugs, the virus re-emerges. Except, that hasn't happened with these 14 patients.
The early treatment is similar to the treatment of the Mississipi baby who was cured. She had ARV drugs administered just 30 hours after being born.
In both cases, the virus is still present, in a greatly reduced form. But in its current state, the body can keep it under control on its own, without the use of drugs. Doctors aren't sure if that will be permanent, or if it will only last a certain amount of time, or while the patients are in otherwise good health. And it won't work for every patient that catches his or her infection early: it's estimated that between 5 and 15 per cent will be functionally cured and no longer need drug treatment. Additionally, being diagnosed with HIV as early as 10 weeks after contracting it isn't overly common, and the early-action aspect could preclude a lot of cases from this treatment.
Still, it's an exciting development, and one that seems like it could be replicable. The advantages of catching HIV early are that it limits how much of the virus will remain once the drugs go into effect; it stops the virus from diversifying itself, which makes it harder to target; and it prevents the immune system from being destroyed.
There will not be a silver bullet for HIV. This is what progress looks like: science fighting the virus off bit by bit. This is a pretty big win, and an even better reason to get tested regularly if you aren't already. [New Scientist, BBC, NYT]