Scientists in Cuba are dealing with an aggressive new strain of HIV that progresses so fast to full blown AIDS that many patients do not even realize they are infected before their immune system is seriously compromised.
The strain has been named CRF19 and is a combination of HIV sub-types A, D and G.
CRF19 has been observed before in Africa but only in isolated cases and it is unknown why or how the strain is now appearing in Cuba.
Professor Anne-Mieke Vandamme of the University of Leuvan in Belgium has been working with Cuban health officials to study the outbreak on the island and spoke to Voice of America about the research that has been taking place.
‘We have a collaborative project with Cuba and the Cuban clinicians had noticed that they recently had more and more patients who were progressing much faster to AIDS than they were used to,’ she said.
‘In this case, most of these patients had AIDS even at diagnosis already.’
Professor Vandamme studied more than 70 Cuban HIV patients and divided them into groups based on how fast they developed symptoms of AIDS.
‘This group of patients that progressed very fast, they were all recently infected,’ she said.
‘And we know that because they had been HIV negative tested one or a maximum two years before.’
Normally, without treatment, HIV infection progresses to full-blown AIDS in between five and ten years depending on the strength of a person’s immune system.
However Professor Vandamme said that what they were observing in Cuba is different.
‘Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast,’ she said.
‘We focused in on this variant [and] tried to find out what was different. And we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes.’
‘Another thing was that they had much more virus in their blood than the other patients. So, what we call the viral load was higher in these patients.’
Thankfully CRF19 still responds to existing anti-retroviral drugs but if an infection is not detected quickly enough permanent damage may occur before treatment can begin to work so it is vital that people in Cuba who are having unprotected sex with multiple partners get tested frequently.
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