We’ve been a little wary of this story, as we’ve heard these “cure for HIV” promises before. But scientists believe that drugs already used to treat HIV can actually be taken to prevent HIV infection.
Taking the pill called Truvada, which is a mix of two drugs (tenofovir and emtricitabine), has been shown to prevent HIV infections in monkeys, when the pill was taken before exposure to the virus.
HIV causes illness by infecting white blood cells, where it replicates thousands of times before bursting out of the cell, destroying it. Then all those strains of the virus attack other white blood cells, until your body has no immune defense system left. Modern drugs combinations (including the medicines in Truvada, as well as “protease inhibitors”) block HIV from replicating–which saves your white blood cells from damage.
While these drugs are not a “cure,” they certainly elongate the lifespan of many people with the disease. If caught early enough, the drugs can obliterate enough of the virus to make it “undetectable” in your bloodstream (even though there’s usually a little bit hiding somewhere). So conventional logic leads scientists to believe that if the drugs are already in the blood, they would stop the virus before it has a chance to get started. Sounds simple enough, right? Perhaps. In lab tests on animals, it seems to work great so far.
But that’s not the whole story.
Two big problems exist with the drugs:
• First, like any medication, they don’t work for everybody. Statistics vary, but no study has ever found “drug cocktail” therapy to be 100% effective. Many studies hover between 70-80%.
• Once you stop taking the drugs, the virus can mutate and become immune to the drugs. This can obviously be a problem with individuals who take the pills once in a while as prevention. These cases of mutation are rare, and many people with HIV do stop taking the pills once their health stabilizes without problems; this is still an experimental phase of treatment. (There are also cases of people developing a mutated strain of the virus, and then infecting someone else.)
A certain member of the Queerty editorial staff once worked as an HIV counselor, conducting research on HIV infection rates for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. He remembers many false promises of “cures” and “vaccinations,” fail-safe solutions that were effective when tested on animals, but utterly worthless when tried out by people. So it goes without saying that this issue must be researched further–and please, do NOT start popping your friend’s HIV drugs in the hopes of keeping yourself safe. Incorrect dosage can make things worse.