A new strain of HIV that rapidly progresses into AIDS has emerged in Cuba, according to research published this week.
Belgian researchers studied 73 newly diagnosed Cuban HIV patients and found that 52 of them rapidly developed AIDS. They concluded the patients were infected with a new HIV strain, identified as CRF19.
Dr. Anne-Mieke Vandamme, the lead author of the study, said the research was prompted by Cuban doctors who alerted her to the problem.
"We have a collaborative project with Cuba and the Cuban clinicians had noticed that they recently had more and more patients who were progressing much faster to AIDS than they were used to [seeing]. In this case, most of these patients had AIDS even at diagnosis already," Vandamme told Voice of America.
Vandamme and her team found that the new strain, a combination of other previously-identified HIV strains, can lead to AIDS within three years of infection. The average timespan before AIDS develops in normal strains of HIV is 10 years, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
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The findings were published in the journal EBioMedicine at the same time that global health organizations announced that AIDS is now the leading cause of death for adolescents in Africa and the second-leading cause of death for adolescents globally. Vandamme's team said in their study that there are signs that the rapidly progressing CRF19 strain already exists in Africa.
Health workers and AIDS activists in the US said the research raised concerns from a public health standpoint, but that further studies were needed to understand the strain. They also stressed that the new research highlights the need for prevention efforts.
Daniel Levitt, the senior technical advisor for HIV/AIDS for CARE USA, emphasized that universal access to treatment, including preventative measures such as PrEP, a pill taken daily that works to keep HIV from establishing a permanent infection, can help lower infection rates in high-risk communities. Individuals need to be aware of their status in order to help prevent transmission, he said.
"There is an increasing focus on treatment as a means not only of ensuring the health and wellbeing of those infect[ed], but as a highly effective means of prevention transmission in a given community," Levitt said in an email to VICE News.
The Miami Herald reported that local researchers were concerned about the new strain's proximity to US shores.
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"We knew that sooner or later we were going to face this locally,'' University of Miami physician Hector Bolivar told the paper. "Cuba is local for Miami. We may see similar situations here in Miami in the future, and that's something I'm concerned about."
Carlos del Rio, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, said that more information on the strain is needed before health officials start to panic.
"I think we need to understand the transmission. Some strains may be a faster progression but less infectious," he told VICE News. "Every virus, to gain certain characteristics, also loses things. We need to understand more about the virus before we make conclusions."
Del Rio said that since there are still not great numbers of Americans traveling to Cuba, the development is "more scientifically interesting than an urgent threat."
"Preventing HIV infection continues to be the number one goal," he said. "As long as there's transmission there's possibility of recombinant strains and new strains emerging, so I'd emphasize the need to redouble prevention efforts."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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