EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The scientific world is still in search of a vaccine that will either prevent HIV infection or serve as a therapy against AIDS.
On HIV Vaccine Awareness Day (observed each year on May 18), Dr. Armando Meza, chief of Infectious Diseases with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said it’s difficult to address this topic without looking at how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine was developed as opposed to an HIV vaccine.
He explained there are different obstacles that science is facing when it comes to finding an HIV vaccine. One of them is deciding whether it is better to focus on finding a preventative vaccine or a therapeutic one.
“Initially the (intention) of this vaccine was for cure, for people who were already infected, but that did not occur, unfortunately,” explained Meza, adding that none of the methods of developing the vaccine were showing results that were proven effective enough.
The other type of vaccine would allow prevention of infection, however, Meza said this has also shown to be a challenge.
“HIV is a type of organism that doesn’t consistently look the same to each immune system. So if you develop a vaccine that is very specific, that is going to be only for that virus,” Meza said, explaining that the mutations of HIV would make the vaccine ineffective.
So far, the studies have shown that using protective cells in the vaccine, rather than antibodies, looks more promising in protection from the virus, said Meza.
There is still no cure for AIDS, but there is medication available that helps to keep the disease under control.
“The treatment is able to contain and stop the progression of infection … A lifelong commitment to drugs that may have toxicity and will have toxicity over the long run will be a challenge in case we never develop a vaccine,” explained Meza.
He said the monthly treatment can cost around $3,000, a sum that is sometimes covered by insurance, but still is a financial burden to many.
By developing the vaccine, he noted, the biggest effect would be on developing countries where this medication is not accessible to the vast majority.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a medicine available for those at high risk of contracting HIV. Meza said this program is available to those who believe they contracted the virus.
Patients who take the medication must get tested quarterly.
“It is a very important matter of public heath and personal health. We now have effective treatment that involves lifelong therapy and does not cure [the disease],” concluded Meza.
The City of El Paso has free HIV testing available on a walk-in basis at 701 Montana Ave. from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
After-hours testing is available every third Wednesday of the month from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.