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Empowering people is the key to ending AIDS – UNAIDS

When people have the power to choose, to know, to thrive, to demand and to work together, lives are saved, injustices are prevented and dignity is restored.

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A new report by UNAIDS, Power to the people, released in time for the observance of World AIDS Day 2019, shows that where people and communities living with and affected by HIV are engaged in decision-making and HIV service delivery, new infections decline and more people living with HIV gain access to treatment. When people have the power to choose, to know, to thrive, to demand and to work together, lives are saved, injustices are prevented and dignity is restored.

“When people and communities have power and agency, change happens,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “The solidarity of women, young people, gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers, people who use drugs and transgender people has transformed the AIDS epidemic—empowering them will end the epidemic.”

The report was launched in Kenya on 26 November by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Cabinet Secretary of Health of Kenya and community representatives. It shows that significant progress has been made, particularly in expanding access to treatment. As of mid-2019, an estimated 24.5 million of the 37.9 million people living with HIV were accessing treatment. As treatment roll-out continues, fewer people are dying of AIDS-related illnesses.

“The partnership between government and civil society, together with the meaningful involvement of communities, has allowed us to significantly reduce new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths,” said Sicily Kariuki, Cabinet Secretary for Health in Kenya. “Communities are the very centre of the AIDS response and are critical to ending AIDS.”

Progress in reducing HIV infections, however, is mixed and 1.7 million people were newly infected with the virus in 2018. New HIV infections declined by 28% from 2010 to 2018 in eastern and southern Africa, the region most affected by HIV. In a promising sign, the incidence rate of HIV among adolescent girls and young women aged between 15 and 24 years in the region declined from 0.8% in 2010 to 0.5% in 2018, a 42% decline. However, young women and girls still bear the brunt of new HIV infections—four out of five new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa are among girls.

Outside of eastern and southern Africa, new HIV infections have declined by only 4% since 2010. Of increasing concern is the rise of new HIV infections in some regions. The annual number of new HIV infections rose by 29% in eastern Europe and central Asia, by 10% in the Middle East and North Africa and by 7% in Latin America.

“In many parts of the world, significant progress has been made in reducing new HIV infections, reducing AIDS-related deaths and reducing discrimination, especially in eastern and southern Africa, but gender inequality and denial of human rights are leaving many people behind,” said Ms Byanyima. “Social injustices, inequality, denial of citizenship rights and stigma and discrimination are holding back progress against HIV and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Power together

The report shows that when people and communities have power and agency, change happens. Communities have put rights-based, people-centred principles at the heart of HIV programmes, ensuring that AIDS responses tackle the inequalities and injustices that fuel the epidemic.

Women and girls are the backbone of care support in their families and communities, providing unpaid and often undervalued work in caring for children, the sick, the elderly and the disabled and underpinning fragile social support systems. This must change. The involvement and leadership of communities of women is vital in the response to HIV.

“As a community leader, I am able to relate to people and understand their background better than someone from the outside. I have been living openly with HIV for 25 years, so people come to me with their issues, such as HIV-related stigma, disclosure and adherence. I have never stepped back from this role as I am part of this community,” said Josephine Wanjiru, an HIV community activist in Kiandutu, Thika, Kenya.

The power to choose

Women and girls are demanding integrated contraception and HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing, prevention and care options. Almost 40% of adult women and 60% of adolescent girls (aged 15–19 years) in sub-Saharan Africa have unmet needs for modern contraception.

In several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, young women’s uptake of medicine to prevent HIV—pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—has been shown to be high in projects that integrate PrEP into youth-friendly health services and family planning clinics and when provision of PrEP is separated from treatment services.

Eleven million voluntary medical male circumcisions to prevent HIV have been performed since 2016, 4 million in 2018 alone in the 15 priority countries.

The power to know

The power to know allows people to keep themselves free from HIV or, if living with the virus, keep healthy. However, people are finding out their HIV status too late, sometimes years after they became infected, leading to a delay in starting treatment and facilitating HIV transmission. In Mozambique, for example, the average time for diagnosis after infection for men was four years.

Adherence to effective treatment suppresses the virus to undetectable levels, keeping people healthy and preventing transmission of the virus. Knowing this allows people living with HIV the opportunity to lead normal lives, confident that they are protecting their loved ones, and confronting stigma and discrimination.

HIV self-testing is now helping more people to find out their HIV status in privacy, breaking the barriers of stigma and discrimination and facilitating linkage to treatment.

Knowledge of HIV among young people is alarmingly low in many regions. In countries with recently available survey data, just 23% of young women (aged 15–24 years) and 29% of young men (aged 15–24 years) have comprehensive and correct knowledge of HIV. Studies show that comprehensive sexuality education does not lead to increased sexual activity, sexual risk-taking or higher infection rates for HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

The power to thrive

The power to thrive is ensuring that people have the right to health, education, work and a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.

New HIV infections among children have declined by 41% since 2010 and nearly 82% of pregnant women living with HIV are on antiretroviral therapy. However, thousands of children are falling between the cracks. Half of all children born with HIV who are not diagnosed early will die before their second birthday, but, globally, only 59% of HIV-exposed children were tested before two months of age.

In 2018, 160 000 children (aged 0–14 years) became newly infected with HIV, and 100 000 children died from an AIDS-related illness. They died either because they weren’t diagnosed, or because of a lack of treatment—a shocking indictment of how children are being left behind.

Gender inequalities, patriarchal norms and practices, violence, discrimination, other rights violations and limited access to sexual and reproductive health services exacerbate the risk of HIV infection among adolescent girls and young women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Each week, an estimated 6000 young women (aged 15–24 years) are infected with HIV.

In Eswatini, a recent study showed that adolescent girls and young women who experienced gender-based violence were 1.6 times more likely to acquire HIV than those who did not. The same study also showed that the economic empowerment of women and girls helped in reducing new HIV infections among women by more than 25% and increased the probability of young women and girls going back to school and finishing their education.

Key populations are being left behind

Key populations and their partners account for at least 75% of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa and are less likely to be on treatment than others. More than one third of key populations do not know their HIV status. Community-led support among gay men and other men who have sex with men is effective in increasing the uptake of PrEP, promoting safer sex, increasing HIV testing rates and supporting treatment adherence.

Transgender people are subjected to discrimination in every sphere of life, including education and employment—only 10% work in the formal economy. But community activism has led to long overdue attention to the rights and realities of transgender people.

Some studies have shown that community empowerment activities among sex workers can increase condom use with clients by three times and reduce HIV infection by more than 30%.

The power to demand

The power to demand gives communities and individuals the power to participate in the decisions that affect them. There have been reports of crackdowns, restrictions and even attacks on groups and campaigns supporting key populations. Some governments refuse to recognize, support or engage community organizations in their national responses to HIV and are subsequently missing out on their enormous potential to reach the people most affected by HIV.

People and communities will end AIDS

The work of community-led organizations is unique and powerful and can have a substantial impact on how the world fairs towards ending AIDS. UNAIDS urges all countries to fully support and enable their community-led organizations, ensure they have a seat at all decision-making tables concerning the health and well-being of their community members and remove any barriers to their active engagement in the response to HIV. Only by fully funding and fully supporting the work of community organizations will the end of AIDS become a reality.

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Short-term use of HIV-prevention medication protects at-risk men on vacation

Short-term use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication could be a highly successful way to prevent the spread of HIV in men who have sex with men and have difficulty with long-term PrEP use. It may also work to transition men to long-term PrEP use, which has been shown to be highly effective in reducing HIV transmission.

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Even if Filipinos still can’t widely access pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)…

Men at particular risk for HIV are very likely to consistently take prevention medication during vacations when their odds of contracting the virus are higher, according to a new study led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, The Fenway Institute and Harvard University.

The findings, published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, indicate that short-term use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication could be a highly successful way to prevent the spread of HIV in men who have sex with men and have difficulty with long-term PrEP use. It may also work to transition men to long-term PrEP use, which has been shown to be highly effective in reducing HIV transmission.

“We started this as a feasibility study to see if we could identify barriers to short-term PrEP use and make adjustments. But we were excited when we got the results and discovered that almost all the participants were adherent to the point of protection against HIV,” said lead author James Egan, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences at Pitt Public Health. “This gives us a promising strategy to pursue in engaging at-risk men in HIV prevention efforts that work for them.”

When taken as a daily pill, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, adhering to a daily medication regimen doesn’t work for everyone for reasons that include cost and individual concerns about the biological consequences of long-term medication.

Previous studies have shown that there are certain periods when men who have sex with men are more vulnerable to contracting HIV, including when traveling, on vacation, moving to a new city or after a break-up. Egan and his team set out to explore whether these men might be more receptive to adhering to PrEP treatment during these times.

The team followed 48 adult men from Pittsburgh or Boston who have sex with men in a pilot program to test the daily use of PrEP for 30 days that included an out-of-town vacation, with the men starting the medication seven days before the trip and continuing for at least seven days after vacation. The men were also given a brief session introducing them to the use of PrEP.

After their vacations, 94% of the men had blood concentrations protective against HIV, consistent with regular use of the medication. Almost 75% reported condomless sex during vacation, and about a third reported recreational drug use. None of the men contracted HIV during their vacation, though one of the men contracted the virus during the three-month post-vacation follow-up period when he’d had a lapse in use of PrEP associated with loss of health insurance and a move to a new city.

Additionally, 70% of the participants indicated an interest in continuing daily PrEP use long-term.

“That really stood out to us,” said senior author Kenneth Mayer, M.D., medical research director at The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health in Boston and professor of medicine at Harvard. “It shows us that introducing short-term use of PrEP before a vacation could lead to longer-term use. This presents an enticing opportunity to reduce HIV transmission.”

However, the scientists pointed out, the study included men who were motivated to enroll and did not address the likelihood of physicians prescribing PrEP for short-term use, the ease of obtaining PrEP for use only during vacations or the impact of the study’s brief counseling on the use of PrEP.

“These are all areas that our findings suggest warrant future explorations,” Egan said. “Our study tells us short-term adherence to PrEP during high-risk periods is tolerable in men who have sex with men, and that it could lead to long-term use. Now we need to determine how to make it possible in the real-world setting.”

Additional authors on this research are Ken Ho, M.D., M.P.H., and Ron Stall, Ph.D., M.P.H., of Pitt; Moe T. Drucker, B.S., and Ryan Tappin, N.P., M.P.H., of Fenway Health in Boston; Craig W. Hendrix, M.D., and Mark A. Marzinke, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University; Steven A. Safren, Ph.D., of Fenway Health and the University of Miami; Matthew J. Mimiaga, Sc.D., M.P.H., of Fenway Health and Brown University; Cristina Psaros, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital; and Steven Elsesser, M.D., of Fenway Health and the University of Pennsylvania.

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Health & Wellness

Notable percentage of trans men who have sex with men never got tested for HIV, bacterial and viral STIs

When considering screening for HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), transgender men who have sex with men (TMSM) represent an understudied population. A study found that a notable percentage of TMSM had never tested for HIV and bacterial and viral STIs.

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When considering screening for HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), transgender men who have sex with men (TMSM) represent an understudied population. A study found that a notable percentage of TMSM had never tested for HIV and bacterial and viral STIs.

In “Sociodemographic and behavioural factors associated with testing for HIV and STIs in a US nationwide sample of transgender men who have sex with men” – done by Nadav Antebi-Gruszka, Ali J. Talan, Sari L. Reisner and Jonathon Rendina, and published in BMJ Journals – researchers tried to examine HIV and STI testing prevalence among TMSM along with the factors associated with testing in a diverse sample of TMSM. They used data from a cross-sectional online convenience sample of 192 TMSM, analyzed using multivariable binary logistic regression models to examine the association between sociodemographic and behavioral factors and lifetime testing for HIV, bacterial STIs and viral STIs, as well as past year testing for HIV.

The researchers found that more than two-thirds of TMSM reported lifetime testing for HIV (71.4%), bacterial STIs (66.7%), and viral STIs (70.8%), and 60.9% had received HIV testing in the past year. Engaging in condomless anal sex with a casual partner whose HIV status is different or unknown and having fewer than two casual partners in the past six months were related to lower odds of lifetime HIV, bacterial STI, viral STI and past year HIV testing.

Being younger in age was related to lower probability of testing for HIV, bacterial STIs and viral STIs.

The domiciles of the TMSM also affected their health-seeking behaviors. In this study, those residing in the South of the US were less likely to be tested for HIV and viral STIs in their lifetime, and for HIV in the past year.

Finally, lower odds of lifetime testing for viral STIs was found among TMSM who reported no drug use in the past six months.

According to the researchers, these findings indicate that a notable percentage of TMSM had never tested for HIV and bacterial and viral STIs, though at rates only somewhat lower than among cisgender MSM despite similar patterns of risk behavior.

They recommend for “efforts to increase HIV/STI testing among TMSM, especially among those who engage in condomless anal sex.”

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People You Should Know

Living with HIV in Digos City

Meet Robin Charles O. Ramos, a person living with HIV in Digos City in Davao del Sur. There are numerous challenges there – e.g. they still have to go to Davao City for their laboratory tests, and get monthly supplies of life-saving ARVs. But they are starting to organize so PLHIVs can help each other.

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“We cannot deny the fact that there are people who will really discriminate us (people living with HIV),” said Robin Charles O. Ramos, who is based in Digos City in Davao del Sur in Mindanao, southern Philippines. “(But) think twice… before you discriminate because (everyone can be infected with) HIV.”

BI AWAKENING

Charles, 33, used to be only attracted to girls. But when he was nine years old, “I (was also) attracted to boys. I realized that I am attracted to both sexes.”

Charles’ family teased him for this. But he added that it’s not like they can prevent him from being bisexual; this “runs in the family,” he said, with other family members also LGBTQIA.

“It was somewhat difficult for me to come out,” he said. This is because he lives in a “relatively small community (where people know me).”

Digos, a 2nd class city and the capital of the province of Davao del Sur, has a population of only 169,393 people (in 2015).

But Charles eventually told others, realizing the relevance of being true/honest to oneself. “I know it (may not be easy) but… the community will (eventually) understand who and what we are.”

FINDING OUT ABOUT HIS HIV STATUS

On November 30, 2017, Charles found out he has HIV.

Prior to the diagnosis, he recalled having bad health – e.g. his cough wouldn’t go away, he had lymph nodes in his throat, he easily got tired/stressed out, and he had recurring fever. He self-medicated, “taking paracetamol” and antibiotics.

“I lost a lot of weight,” Charles recalled, “from 56 kilograms to 48 kilograms.”

At that point, his mother told him: “It’s time to rush to the hospital.”

The attending physician had Charles undergo more tests… including HIV antibody test.

The person who gave him the news about his HIV status was “actually a friend of mine.” In fact, he pre-empted the counselor from telling him the result; “I told her myself, ‘It’s positive, right?’.”

EVERYONE CAN BE INFECTED

Even before then, Charles actually worked in HIV advocacy.

So the person who gave him the news about his HIV status was “actually a friend of mine.” In fact, he pre-empted the counselor from telling him the result; “I told her myself, ‘It’s positive, right?’.”

That was also “mind conditioning” for him, he said. “I conditioned my mind that I’m positive already… it’s a way of acceptance of the matter.”

Right there and then, Charles opted to tell family members. And they had one question for him: Why him, considering he’s in HIV advocacy, and should know better?

“Anyone can be infected,” Charles said to them.

“Think twice… before you discriminate because (everyone be infected with) HIV.”

BEING OPEN ABOUT LIVING WITH HIV

If there’s one thing Charles said that’s good about being out, it’s being able to get external help as needed.

“I lose nothing by coming out,” he said. And for him, “PLHIVs need to come out… as a strategy for us to eradicate stigma and discrimination.”

At this stage in his life, “I don’t care if they talk about me. This is already here. Just accept it.”

Charles is also a teacher, and he opted to tell his supervisors and peers about his medical condition. This honesty paid off since “they support me.” His workmates always remind him to “not be stressed” and “have time to rest”.

HIV-RELATED ISSUES IN DAVAO DEL SUR

HIV screening and/or testing is, at least, accessible to the people of Digos City, said Charles. The social hygiene clinic (SHC) of the local government unit (LGU), for one, offers this; and “every time we conduct (gatherings) about HIV, there is HIV testing (given).”

It is the access to life-saving medicines (the antiretroviral treatment, or ARV) that is problematic.

“Here in Digos City, ARV is not yet available,” Charles said.

And so PLHIVs from there have to go to the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City, which is 62.5 kilometers away (or approximately an hour of commute).

If there’s one thing Charles said that’s good about being out, it’s being able to get external help as needed.

Many of the PLHIVs from Digos City go to SPMC together, renting a van to take them to and from Davao City for their regular tests and ARV supplies.

A related issue: PLHIVs have to go every month because they are only given a month’s supply because of procurement issues. The usual practice is to give PLHIVs supply for three months. And – even if the Department of Health denies that there are issues concerning ARV supplies – at least the Digos City experience highlights the continuing difficulty with accessing life-saving medicines.

The dream for PLHIVs like Charles is for a refilling station to be established in Digos City to serve not only those living there, but also the nearby localities of Kidapawan City, Davao Occidental, et cetera.

EMPOWERING THE HIV COMMUNITY

Charles recognizes that many try to help PLHIVs, but he also thinks that empowering PLHIVs to help each other is essential.

“We have formally created a group: Bagani Southern Davao,” he said. The name was derived from the word “Bagani”, the peacekeeping force of the Manobo tribes and other indigenous groups in Mindanao. Akin to the word, “we’re warriors; we’re fighting against this illness.”

There are currently 20 active members; though, of course, not all PLHIVs in the area are members.

The dream for PLHIVs like Charles is for a refilling station to be established in Digos City to serve not only those living there, but also the nearby localities of Kidapawan City, Davao Occidental, et cetera.

To other PLHIVs in the area, Charles said he recognizes that it may take time before they can decide if they’d come out. “I respect (this) decision… But coming out as PLHIV is a way of educating people that they shouldn’t fear us, and that (having HIV) isn’t the end of our lives or the end of anything.”

As PLHIVs, he said, “we have more to offer, more to do” particularly in educating people.

And to non-PLHIVs or those who do not know their HIV status: “Know your status. Get tested. And stop discriminating people. It’s not like we wanted this to happen to us. But this is already here. We just need your support, and the respect that we want because we’re still human beings.”

“I lose nothing by coming out,” he said. And for him, “PLHIVs need to come out… as a strategy for us to eradicate stigma and discrimination.”

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HIV research over-emphasizing select populations at detriment of others – study

Medication to manage HIV is now very effective at keeping people well. But over half of people living with HIV do not take their medication as prescribed. The problem could be in the way that studies are designed in the first place – with BAME communities, women and straight men under-represented.

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People with HIV from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, women and heterosexual men are underrepresented in HIV studies. This is according to research from the University of East Anglia and Western Sydney University.

Medication to manage HIV is now very effective at keeping people well. But over half of people living with HIV do not take their medication as prescribed. But the world has yet to find solutions that are routinely used by healthcare teams to successfully support people to take their medication as prescribed – despite many studies designed to investigate the problem.

New research revealed that the problem could be in the way that studies are designed in the first place – with BAME communities, women and straight men under-represented.

The research team said that this imbalance of representation needs to be fixed, in order to design solutions that suit the needs of a diverse population and keep people with HIV living longer, healthier lives.

Lead researcher Prof Debi Bhattacharya from UEA’s School of Pharmacy said: “It’s really important that people with HIV start taking medication as soon as possible and continue taking it as prescribed for life. While medication can’t cure HIV, taking it correctly helps people live longer, healthier lives. Medication can also reduce the risk of HIV transmission.”

The research team reviewed 80 studies designed to evaluate different approaches for supporting people to take their HIV medication correctly. They found that people from ethnic minorities, women and heterosexual men were underrepresented for the country in which the study was taking place.

Prof Bhattacharya said: “We found that none of the 80 studies had a trial population that reflected the actual population of people living with HIV. For example in many cases, gay men were over-represented in studies, compared with the amount of gay men living with HIV.”

In one American study, not a single woman was included even though women represent around one in five people with HIV.

“This is a problem because we know that in several countries including America, HIV rates in men are falling more than they are for women.”

As these patient groups are being significantly underrepresented in these types of trials, their needs, beliefs and attitudes to treatment are not fully understood. This potentially leaves these populations without the support they need to live well with HIV.

“We also know that language profoundly affects the way patients understand their treatment routines – which impacts on how they engage with their disease and medication. Failure to take this into account seriously hinders people from getting the best clinical outcomes.”

Research methods must be adapted to support the wide range of people with differing needs that make up the diversity of people with a specific disease.

The researchers similarly found that none of the studies used research methods to encourage people with differing languages and culture to contribute in the ways that are needed for the research to be successful.

“This may explain why we have seen few of these solutions that are shown to work in the studies then go on to be routinely used in healthcare.”

Over the years, greater scrutiny has been noted on how research is conducted to ensure that people invited to participate in research are fully informed before they decide to participate. “But, the changes have led to new problems, such as people with limited literacy or those less fluent in the local language being excluded from studies. It is important that we continue to protect the public whilst also supporting people with differing needs to participate in research.”

According to the researchers, the guidelines for carrying out research need to recognize that research methods must be adapted to support the wide range of people with differing needs that make up the diversity of people with a specific disease.

“The guidelines also need to communicate more strongly, the importance of properly involving people for whom the research is intended to help, at the earliest possible stage of the research otherwise these health inequalities may continue.”

This research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Western Sydney University, Australia.

‘Do interventions to improve adherence to antiretroviral therapy recognise diversity? A systematic review’ is published in the journal AIDS Care.

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Long-acting, injectable drug could strengthen efforts to prevent, treat HIV

Long-acting injectable formulations appear to be greatly preferred by both patients and physicians compared to current daily drug regimens that can be challenging to maintain. Additionally, the steady therapeutic drug levels provided by such a formulation would reduce the risk of drug resistance caused by missed daily pills, as well as reduce side effects.

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Scientists have developed an injectable drug that blocks HIV from entering cells. They say the new drug potentially offers long-lasting protection from the infection with fewer side effects. The drug, which was tested in non-human primates, could eventually replace or supplement components of combination drug “cocktail” therapies currently used to prevent or treat the virus.

University of Utah Health scientists led the study in collaboration with researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and Navigen, Inc.

“This is an exciting new HIV therapeutic option for both prevention and treatment, with a unique mechanism of action compared to other approved drugs,” says Michael S. Kay, M.D. Ph.D., a senior author of the study and a U of U Health professor of biochemistry. “It has great potential to help patients who suffer from drug resistance as well as those who would benefit from a longer-acting, injectable anti-HIV drug cocktail.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In 2019, about 1.7 million people worldwide were newly infected with HIV, according to the World Health Organization. More than 38 million people are currently living with the infection. Combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), the so-called “drug cocktail,” has dramatically improved survival and quality of life for such patients, but it is also costly, often has serious side effects, and requires patients to take pills daily. In addition, because HIV frequently mutates, drug resistance is a constant challenge, Kay says, so researchers are always seeking new drugs with novel mechanisms of action to produce more robust combination therapies.

In this new study, the researchers tested a unique drug called CPT31, based on a D-peptide that targets a critical pocket on HIV’s fusion machinery that rarely mutates. D-peptides are mirror images of naturally occurring peptides. To imagine it, think of right and left hands. The building blocks and overall structure of natural peptides are analogous to our left hand versus our right hand for D-peptides.

Because of that, CPT31 and other D-peptides are not degraded in the body. Therefore, they last much longer than natural peptides, making them especially suitable for a long-acting injectable formulation.

“In addition to their durability in the body, D-peptides are largely ignored by the immune system, preventing immune reactions that are a side effect often seen with traditional peptide and protein drugs,” says Brett Welch, a co-author of the study and senior director of technology and strategy at Navigen, Inc., the Salt Lake City company that co-developed CPT31 and is managing clinical trials. “As a D-peptide, our hope is that CPT31 will provide extended viral suppression with a lower dose and reduced side effects.”

To see if CPT31 could prevent HIV infection, Kay and colleagues first injected the drug into healthy macaque monkeys starting several days prior to exposure to a hybrid simian-human form of HIV called SHIV. The monkeys were completely protected from this very high SHIV exposure, much higher than what humans typically encounter, and never developed signs of infection. Subsequently, the scientists identified the minimum dose of CPT31 needed to confer complete protection, information that will help inform clinical trials.

“We think this drug could be used by itself to prevent HIV infection because initial HIV exposure typically involves a relatively small amount of virus,” Kay says. “This study showed that the vast majority of circulating HIV strains from around the world are potently blocked by CPT31.”

But what about later stages of the disease when there are billions of copies of the virus circulating in the body?

To find out, the researchers gave CPT31 to monkeys with untreated SHIV infections and high viral loads. Over the course of 30 days, the drug significantly lowered the presence of SHIV in their bloodstreams. However, virus levels rebound in two to three weeks due to drug resistance, as typically observed when treating established infections with a single drug.

Finally, the researchers tested the drug’s ability to maintain viral suppression after a cART drug cocktail is discontinued in macaques. cART reduces SHIV to an undetectable level, but the virus rapidly rebounds after discontinuing therapy (as also seen in humans). In this study, CPT31 by itself effectively kept the virus at an undetectable level for months (until drug administration was discontinued).

“Such a simplified ‘maintenance therapy’ could present patients with a new option for viral control that is more cost-effective, convenient to take, and has fewer side effects,” Kay says.

In parallel with clinical trials, Navigen is developing a long-acting injectable formulation of CPT31 with the goal of only requiring injection of the drug once every three months.

“Long-acting injectable formulations appear to be greatly preferred by both patients and physicians compared to current daily drug regimens that can be challenging to maintain,” Welch says. “Additionally, the steady therapeutic drug levels provided by such a formulation would reduce the risk of drug resistance caused by missed daily pills, as well as reduce side effects.”

Upcoming human trials, scheduled for later this year, will help determine whether CPT31 is safe and effective in humans. Kay says that the full course of human clinical trials and subsequent FDA approval could take several years.

In addition to Dr. Kay, other U of U Health researchers involved in this study titled, “Prevention and Treatment of SHIVAD8 in Rhesus Macaques by a Potent D-peptide HIV Early Inhibitor,” were J.N. Francis and A.R. Smith. Additional researchers included Y. Nishimura, O. Donau, E. Jesteadt, R. Sadjadpour, and M.A. Martin of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID); and M.S. Seaman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIAID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery. Drs. Kay and Welch hold equity in Navigen.

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Study finds benefit in more frequent HIV screenings for young men who have sex with men

HIV screening every three months, in addition to existing patterns of HIV screening among YMSM, would most improve HIV transmission and life expectancy among these men while remaining cost-effective. However, the results do not apply to youth who do not meet high-risk criteria.

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A study has found that HIV screening every three months compared to annually will improve clinical outcomes and be cost-effective among high-risk young men who have sex with men (YMSM). The report, led by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), is published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Young men who have sex with men account for the biggest chunk of those who get infected with HIV every year.

In the Philippines, for instance, data from the Department of Health in 2019 showed that from October to December 2019, 926 (31%) cases were among youth 15-24 years old and 94% were male. Almost all were infected through sexual contact (89 male-female sex, 597 male-male sex, 233 sex with both males and females).

In the US, one in five new HIV infections is YMSM, and “yet more than half of young men who have sex with men and who are living with HIV don’t even know that they have it,” says Anne Neilan, MD, MPH, investigator in the MGH Division of Infectious Diseases and the Medical Practice Evaluation Center, who led the study. “With so many youth with HIV being unaware of their status, this is an area where there are opportunities not only to improve care for individual youth but also to curb the HIV epidemic…”

Despite these numbers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously determined that there was insufficient youth-specific evidence to warrant changing their 2006 recommendation of an annual HIV screening among men who have sex with men (MSM).

HIV screening refers to testing of individuals who do not have symptoms of the infection. As defined by the study, high-risk refers to a recent history of condomless anal intercourse, sexually transmitted infection, or multiple sexual partners. Given the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on YMSM, screening for HIV more frequently than current recommendations could identify infections that would otherwise be missed.

HIV screening every three months, in addition to existing patterns of HIV screening among YMSM, would most improve HIV transmission and life expectancy among these men while remaining cost-effective. However, the results do not apply to youth who do not meet high-risk criteria.

The study used data from the Adolescent Medicine Trials Network for HIV/AIDS Interventions (ATN) on how often HIV occurs in each age group, as well as the stage of disease at the time of diagnosis, to project the probable results of screening every three months, six months, or yearly.

Because a traditional study design to examine how often young men who have sex with men should be screened would be nearly impossible to conduct, the authors used a well-published computer microsimulation model developed by members of the research team.

The analysis revealed that HIV screening every three months, in addition to existing patterns of HIV screening among YMSM, would most improve HIV transmission and life expectancy among these men while remaining cost-effective. However, the results do not apply to youth who do not meet high-risk criteria.

Andrea Ciaranello, MD, MPH, investigator MGH Division of Infectious Disease, senior author of the study, says: “The improvements in life expectancy and reduction in HIV transmission were substantial. With more frequent screening, we also estimated that there would be additional, important improvements in the proportion of YMSM who are able to engage in HIV treatment and have excellent control of their HIV infection.”

The authors also highlighted the opportunities for improved implementation of current annual screening recommendations. “If even the current CDC recommendations for annual HIV screening among YMSM could be fully met, important gains could be made both for the health of youth with HIV and in working toward our goal of ending the HIV epidemic,” says Ciaranello. “Ultimately, our study underscores the value of ongoing research to examine the most effective ways to increase HIV screening among youth.”

Neilan adds: “We found that screening every three months was cost-effective.”

In the US, the screening program itself cost up to $760 per person screened. The test itself cost $38-76;.

“This suggests that a large additional investment in innovative HIV screening approaches for youth, including venue-based screening or mobile screening units, would be of good value,” Neilan ends.

Neilan is also an Instructor in Medicine, and Ciaranello is an associate pdrofessor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Additional co-authors of the report are Alexander J. B. Bulteel, Julia H. A. Foote, Kenneth A. Freedberg, MD, MSc, Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, Pooyan Kazemian, PhD, MGH Medical Practice Evaluation Center; Sybil G. Hosek, PhD, Stroger Hospital of Cook County; Raphael J. Landovitz, MD, MSc, University of California, Los Angeles; Stephen C. Resch, PhD, MPH, Milton C. Weinstein, PhD, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health; A. David Paltiel, PhD, MBA, Yale School of Public Health; and Craig M. Wilson, MD, Department of Epidemiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.

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