Canada’s new HIV strain is moving too fast for medicine’s current capabilities

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Since its discovery in the 1980s, HIV has struck fear in the hearts of doctors and patients alike. Today it is possible to help patients manage symptoms better than ever before. Most have an excellent outlook, yet scientists only ever seem to get within inches of finding a cure. On a more worrying note, reports are emerging that there is a new HIV strain in Canada.

Like all viruses, HIV mutates according to the environment it is in. In most areas of the world HIV continuously mutates, but its state of progression is slow enough for medics to deliver excellent symptom treatment to those who catch it. Canada’s most recent HIV strain, however, is demonstrating worrying mutations that make it difficult for normal immune responses to fight off.

Canada’s HIV strain and how it’s different

Canada’s HIV strain became evident via anecdotal reports in 2016. Said reports highlighted how HIV was spreading rapidly throughout the Saskatchewan community, with sufferers demonstrating nasty symptoms. After receiving the reports a team of scientists at the BC Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS analyzed the new virus in a laboratory setting.

Using samples from 2,300 people, they found that each of the 78 strains present had major immune-resistant mutations. The mutations present don’t make HIV easier to catch. However, if someone develops the mutation, their symptoms will progress quickly if they remain untreated. It’s also important to note that anybody can catch these strains; they’re not unique to members of the Saskatchewan community.

Researcher Dr. Alex Wong has been quoted as saying “…we were seeing rates of progression much quicker…” While most HIV patients will see their disease progress within 10 years, those with the new HIV strain in Saskatchewan are experiencing worrying symptoms within 12 months.

Around 80-percent of the strains tested in Saskatchewan demonstrated worrying mutations. This is 60-percent higher than the strains that feature across North America as a whole. Following the emergence of the study’s results public health campaigners have begun creating programs that promote the safe use of needles amongst drug users, as well as practicing safe sex.

The importance of rapid testing and treatment

If medics catch the HIV strains present quickly enough, those who catch the disease can still achieve an excellent quality of life. Receiving treatment promptly also means that the sufferer is less likely to pass the disease on through sexual intercourse. Similarly, women with the disease who fall pregnant can receive the right therapies for preventing vertical transmission to their infant.

One way to make sure the new HIV strains don’t spread to others is to encourage rapid testing. If doctors catch the disease early enough, they can introduce antiretrovirals that suppress the disease. When the mutations have fewer chances to spread, it’s more likely that they will die out.

While it still appears that HIV is a disease that’s not curable, healthcare professionals of all types now need to remain vigilant in highlighting at-risk groups. By promoting routine testing and looking for individuals with rapidly accelerating symptoms, it may be possible to prevent the new HIV strain from spreading elsewhere.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.