There was been a lot of talk recently about a British trial that targets the dormant T cells that contain HIV even when the viral load is undetectable. Mainstream media sources, like The Sunday Times, Independent, The Telegraph, Wired, etc., have reported on this study as a future cure for HIV. However, the way they present this study is not only misleading but harmful.
If you have not seen one of these articles, a man in Britain was given intense therapy that included a vaccine and a drug called Vorinostat, in addition to a standard ART regimen. The researchers found that he had an undetectable viral load, but admitted "We cannot yet state whether any individual has responded to the intervention or been cured."
What many of these articles fail to mention is that many people living with HIV are undetectable from taking their antiretroviral therapy. There is no evidence that the treatment did anything more than the available treatment does. Yet articles claim that "A 44-year-old British man may have become the first person in the world to be cured of HIV."
The hype over this study is premature, as only one person was studied and the initial findings will not be published for over a year. They also plan to monitor all patients for a further 5 years to determine if the treatment has depleted the HIV reservoirs. Even if this treatment does hold promise, it will not be widely available for many years.
Many HIV news sources have questioned the way this study is presented by the media.
At best, this is a misunderstanding of the scientific process and, at worst, sensationalism. So-called kick and kill studies are not new, and their goal is less to eradicate every last virion of HIV than to see how much of the latent reservoir can be affected by the strategies being tested. These are the first steps along a long road. *
The sense of false hope that this study gives could be harmful for people with HIV. As the media and researchers continue to cry wolf, people may become cynical, lose hope for a future cure, or lose their faith in medical advancements and treatments.
Headlines like "British scientists hopeful for HIV cure" also contribute to a dangerous sense of security for people at risk for HIV. People think of HIV as a problem of the past, and news like this may lessen people's concern about HIV even more.