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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 13 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 50
Aggressive new HIV strain found in West Africa
Section One
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Aggressive new HIV strain found in West Africa

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Researchers from Lund University in Sweden have discovered an aggressive new strain of HIV in patients in Guinea-Bissau on the west coast of Africa.

Patrik Medstrand, Professor of Clinical Virology at Lund University said it is highly likely that there are a large number of circulating HIV strains about which we know little or nothing.

One of the hallmarks of the newly identified strain is the speed with which the infection develops. Untreated, it reportedly causes progression to AIDS in about 5 years, as opposed to some eight years for most other HIV strains.

The findings were published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The HIV strain, identified as A3/02, is a recombinant, or fusion, of two previously known strains, which are common in West Africa. Angelica Palm, one of the authors of the study, told GhanaWeb that recombinant strains occur when a patient is infected by two different HIV strains, whose DNA then fuses to produce a new strain of the virus. She added that recombinant strains appear to be more aggressive than their parent strains.

'The good news is that as far as we know the medicines that are available today are equally functional on all different subtypes of variants,' she added.

An HIV-positive diagnosis changes to AIDS when the patient's white blood cell count dips below 200, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Phalguni Gupta, a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Graduate Health, told BBC News that most clinicians also consider a diagnosis of AIDS when a patient with HIV develops a serious infection such as pneumonia, cancer, or a wasting syndrome characterized by severe weight loss, diarrhea and high fever.

In poorer regions such as West Africa, tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among people with HIV.

Gupta cautioned that it was misleading to say that this new strain was the most aggressive form of AIDS yet known.

'There are some HIV types here in the United States that take as little as two years to develop into AIDS,' he noted.

That information is particularly troubling in light of a new CDC report that found that since 2005, there has been a 48% increase in unprotected anal sex in the U.S. among men who have sex with men. Men who engage in risky sexual behavior are often unaware of their positive HIV status, the report found.

So far the new HIV strain seems confined to West Africa, but health officials fear that recombinants are becoming more common and could start to spread globally, especially to highly mobile regions such as Europe and the United States.

Gupta said the new West African strain needs to be monitored to see if it transmits more readily than other types of HIV. This is a question the researchers have not yet explored.

An estimated 34 million people globally have been diagnosed with HIV, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the epidemic began more than 30 years ago, the infection has claimed more than 33 million lives, the CDC estimates.

More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with the infection but nearly one in six is unaware they are infected.

The groups that are most susceptible to HIV infection in Western countries are men who have sex with other men, heterosexuals and people who use IV drugs. Although all races and ethnic groups are susceptible, African Americans remain disproportionately affected.

Elsewhere in the world, AIDS is the number one killer of women and girls of childbearing age, according to WHO.

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