Drug-resistant HIV strain identified as Aids epidemic looms in Philippines

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Aids

UPDATED: See below

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A Philippine scientist has warned of a new drug-resistant subtype of HIV that could worsen the country’s worrying Aids epidemic.

According to Dr Edsel Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines, the HIV AE subtype is a more aggressive form of virus.

“Those infected by the HIV subtype AE are younger, sicker patients who are more resistant to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. We are also seeing a faster progression to AIDS under subtype AE,” he added.

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While global HIV rates are generally declining due to advancements in treatment and care, the trend is reversed in the Philippines. Data from the 2017 UNAIDS Report on global HIV epidemic states point to new HIV cases among Filipinos growing more than double – from 4,300 in 2010 to 10,500 in 2016.

“The truth is we are just a few viral mutations away from a resurgence of HIV – and it is not going to look like what it used to look like. It will be worse. If we are not vigilant, we are going to be caught with our pants down,” Dr Salvana said.

He added that local research into the AE subtype of HIV was “urgently needed.”

“Specifically for the Philippines, we need more scientists willing to do research work on HIV. To do this, we need to make access to government research funds more efficient. The current government procurement procedures are tedious and slow, which causes further delay in research,” he said.

He also said that the modernisation of HIV testing laws in the Philippines was “long overdue.”

He added that an ‘opt-out’ approach might be better as well.

Under an opt-out approach, patients are told an HIV test will also be conducted unless they specifically ask to opt out.

“This approach is meant to help identify persons living with HIV who may otherwise not volunteer or subject themselves to testing because they do not think that they are at risk of HIV infection,” Dr Salvano said.

UPDATE: Tuesday, March 20.

Statement by Dr Louie Ocampo, Country Director, UNAIDS Philippines

UNAIDS would like to state that reports suggesting that there is a new and untreatable strain of the HIV in the country are untrue. There is no new strain found circulating in the Philippines. The variants of the HIV found in the country have not changed and are similar to the strains of the virus found throughout Asia and in other parts of the world. HIV is an ever-evolving virus. As such, mutations and shifts from one subtype to another have been previously described in many medical journals and scholarly articles. The strains present in the country have not been documented to be more infectious than other virus variants, nor resistant to the current treatment regimen.

As with all strains of the HIV, prevention measures such as consistent condom use, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP), and universal treatment which achieves viral suppression are effective in reducing transmission. All the strains found in the Philippines are effectively treated with standard antiretroviral therapy. Dr Jose Gerard Belimac, Program Manager of the National HIV/AIDS/STI Prevention and Control Program (NASPCP) highlighted that early testing, early diagnosis, and immediate treatment initiation are fundamentals to halting the growth of the country’s epidemic.

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