Over the past few decades, remarkable advancements in HIV treatment and prevention have transformed what was once a devastating diagnosis into a manageable chronic condition for many people. 

HIV can affect anyone, yet stigma and discrimination continues to surround the virus, preventing people from accessing the care they need. A late diagnosis can lead to a shorter life expectancy, while early treatment and care in many cases enables people to live full and healthy lives. 

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infection that attacks and weakens the immune system, by targeting the body’s white blood cells. This makes it easier to get sick with diseases like tuberculosis, infections and some cancers. AIDS — Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — is the most advanced stage of the disease.

By 2025, it’s hoped that 95% of all people living with HIV should have a diagnosis, 95% of those should be taking lifesaving antiretroviral treatment (ART; see below) and 95% of those on treatment should achieve a suppressed viral load.

Around 39 million people are living with HIV globally, with three people newly infected every minute around the world.

Thanks to scientific breakthroughs, improved access to healthcare, and innovative strategies in public health, there’s been a promising amount of progress in recent years. The UNAIDS Global Report 2023 highlighted that 2022 saw the lowest number of new infections among children globally since the 1980s, and that programs for preventing the transmission of HIV during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding have averted an estimated 3.4 million infections in children. 

Furthermore, countries like Botswana, Eswatini, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have achieved the “95-95-95” targets, and in the past few years, several countries have removed harmful laws, decriminalizing same-sex sexual relations.

Here, we take a closer look at some of the most significant advancements in the fight against HIV.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART)

One of the most profound advancements in HIV treatment has been the development of antiretroviral therapy (ART). Introduced in the mid-1990s, ART involves the use of a combination of drugs to suppress the virus’s replication, reducing the viral load in the blood to undetectable levels. This not only prevents the progression of HIV to AIDS but also significantly reduces the risk of HIV transmission.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), ART has saved millions of lives globally and continues to be the cornerstone of HIV treatment.

Pre-Exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a preventive strategy for individuals at high risk of HIV infection. PrEP involves taking a daily pill containing antiretroviral drugs to prevent the virus from establishing an infection if exposed.

Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection by up to 99% when taken consistently. The widespread adoption of PrEP has been a game-changer in HIV prevention efforts, particularly among high-risk populations .

Long-acting injectables

Recent advancements include the development of long-acting injectable forms of antiretroviral drugs. These injections, administered once every one to two months, offer a convenient alternative to daily pills, improving adherence and making treatment more accessible.

Clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of long-acting injectables in maintaining viral suppression, with some formulations expected to be approved for broader use soon .

Advances in vaccine research

Although there is no vaccine for HIV yet, significant progress has been made in this area, with recent trials showing promise. Some experimental vaccines have induced strong immune responses in participants.

Researchers are exploring various approaches, including messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, similar to those developed for COVID-19, which may accelerate the development of an effective HIV vaccine.

Gene therapy and functional cures

Gene therapy represents a cutting-edge area of research aimed at achieving a functional cure for HIV. Techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 are being investigated to edit the HIV genome out of infected cells or make cells resistant to HIV.

While still in experimental stages, gene therapy holds the potential to provide long-term remission or even a cure for HIV, moving beyond merely managing the virus to eradicating it from the body .

Community and global efforts

Organisations such as UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have been instrumental in funding research, providing access to treatment, and promoting education and awareness.

These efforts have helped reduce the stigma associated with HIV, increased testing and early diagnosis, and improved access to lifesaving treatments, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The advancements in HIV treatment and prevention over the past few decades are a testament to the power of scientific innovation and global collaboration.  As we continue to push the boundaries of medical science, there is renewed hope that we can one day achieve an AIDS-free generation and bring an end to the HIV epidemic.

 

Explore our upcoming programme

HIV: Towards Zero by 2030’ will explore reducing the stigma and improving preventative measures, but also the advances in treatment and the support available, allowing those living with HIV, to lead full lives.

Launching on World AIDS Day, 1st December 2024, the programme will feature contributions from industry thought leaders including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the National AIDS Trust and the Terrence Higgins Trust. The programme will also show how far treatments and services have come since the first AIDS related death over 40 years ago and those organisations addressing global health inequalities, working to end new transmissions by 2030.

There are commercial opportunities for leading organisations to be featured in the programme and spearhead their own news item. If your organisation wants to share what you stand for and be part of this important conversation, please contact ITN Business’ Head of Healthcare Programming, Georgia Gerstein.