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The HIV Cure Chatter Is Real, but It's Only Part of Our Story

By Myles Helfand

July 10, 2013

Myles Helfand

Myles Helfand

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to have trouble telling apart one HIV cure story from another.

Just one short year ago, it was all so simple: Whenever anyone talked about a person being cured of HIV, we knew exactly who was being referred to. How could we not? There was literally only one guy they could be talking about.

Then, last summer, one became three. This year, three became four, four quickly became 18 and just last week, 18 became 19. Plus, we know of a 20th that may be in the works. And that's likely just the beginning.

We have entered a cure renaissance in the HIV community. "Cure" has stopped being a word we only utter sarcastically under our breath, a word we only see written in misreported mainstream media stories.

The entire community is buzzing with "cure" talk now. It's not just mainstream media. It's not just idle chatter we might have with friends over dinner. We're not talking about "cure" in an abstract sense anymore. Even the HIV research community -- a group of medical professionals and academics who pride themselves on an extremely cautious, conservative approach to gathering and reporting scientific developments -- has joined the trend.

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I've been attending HIV research conferences since 2003. Through most of the past decade, the bulk of the conversation at these meetings -- at least, the stuff that most of our community tended to get excited about -- revolved around the latest HIV drugs in development and the side effects they caused. In more recent years, a greater focus has been placed on issues related to aging and long-neglected groups (women, African Americans), among other subjects. But an HIV cure has long been a topic non grata at these conferences.

Three years ago, Anthony Fauci, M.D. -- the man who runs the arm of the U.S. government that conducts HIV/AIDS research -- took the stage at a major HIV research conference to urge his colleagues to put more focus on ending the pandemic. Even that step was an unusual one -- and Fauci took it carefully, only discussing strategies that felt more realistic within the research community: more testing, better prevention, getting more people on treatment, developing a vaccine.

The research environment has evolved quickly since that meeting.

Last week, thousands gathered in Malaysia for this year's International AIDS Society conference, one of the world's largest periodic gatherings of HIV researchers and care providers. In his keynote speech during the opening session, Steven Deeks, M.D., a renowned HIV scientist and expert in the field, confidently explained the reasons why he felt we should be at least cautiously optimistic about a cure.

In his speech at this major scientific meeting, Deeks talked about a cure for HIV -- as in, the actual eradication of the virus from a person's body -- not as some abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea, but as something real and quantifiable that we can achieve. The road ahead is still strewn with boulders and pitfalls, and we have no clue how long that road stretches. But even our brightest research minds are buzzing about it, and they're not afraid to do so on medical science's grandest stages.

So, it's not just your imagination -- and it's not just media sensationalism -- that has led to what feels like a crazy amount of talk lately about curing HIV. Given our history with this virus, it's understandable to be leery of this sudden flood of cure chatter. I know my own instinct is to immediately try to tamp down expectations, and I clarify at every opportunity that all of our "cure" cases to date are functional cures -- that is, people in whom HIV appears to be no longer replicating or doing anything bad inside their bodies according to our current measurements, but who we can't yet be certain have absolutely zero virus anywhere inside them.

It's also reasonable, I think, if you find yourself growing weary of all this cure chatter (not to mention our coverage of it). Until reports of a cure start being about more than these rare cases involving risky or little-understood procedures in a small handful of people, talk about a cure will have little to no impact on the daily lives of anybody living with HIV. If anything, it distracts us from the issues with more direct importance: mental and emotional health, drugs in development, side effects, life expectancy, adherence issues, nutrition, relationships, paying for health care and any number of other critical topics.

For my part, I can see it both ways. The recent cure developments -- and those we hope are approaching on the near horizon -- are worth getting excited about and following closely. But it's important for us not to lose sight of the issues that matter in our community today, and not to get so wrapped up in our run to the future that we trip over the present obstacles that stand in the way of our health and our happiness. Pretty sure I speak for all of us here when I say that we'll do our best to ensure that TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com keep on an even keel.

Where do you stand on all of this? Do you value blow-by-blow coverage of each new development along the road to what we hope will be an eventual cure? I'd love to see what you have to say in the comment section.

Myles Helfand is the editorial director of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Myles on Twitter: @MylesatTheBody.


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