Alarmed by the speed at which some HIV patients were developing AIDS, officials in Cuba reached out to Professor Anne-Mieke Vandamme, a professor of health at the University of Leuvan in Belgium.
Vandamme and her team studied over 70 patients, dividing them into groups. The team composed one group with those progressing toward AIDS much quicker than the five to 10 years the virus normally takes to develop into the autoimmune disease.
The individuals that developed AIDS at the unprecedented rates had tested negative for HIV just one or two years prior to testing positive. HIV would typically only progress to AIDS at the speeds observed by Cuban health officials and Vandamme’s team when a individual’s immune system was already weak prior to contracting the virus.
But what’s happening in Cuba appears to be the recombination of three sub-strains of the virus. Individuals with the aggressive strain were found to have more of the virus in their system than the other patients.
“Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast,” says Vandamme in an interview. “Not in the other two groups. We focused in on this variant [and] tried to find out what was different. And we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes.” Outside of the lab, recombinant strains of diseases can develop in a person who has contracted multiple variants of a virus.
The aggressive strain of HIV found in Cuba combines sub-types A, C and D to create what being called CRF19. The discovery of CRF19 in Cuba comes just after the world received a bit of good news in the war on HIV and AIDS.
Research shows HIV-related deaths among African Americans has dropped by about 28 percent, a landmark for the group that suffers the highest mortality rate due to the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used data from 2012 to reach its conclusion that HIV-related deaths among African Americans was on the decline. The CDC report also found the disparity between HIV-related deaths in white and black people has narrowed from about a 28 percent margin in 2008 to a divide of approximately 13 percent 2012.