Swaziland, a small country in southern Africa, has reduced the rate of HIV infections by almost half in five years by boosting access to HIV drugs, according to researchers. Swaziland has the highest rates of HIV infections in the world, as about one in 3 adults carries the virus.
For the past five years, the country has been implementing public programs to test people for HIV and has put infected people on life-saving anti-retroviral treatment (ART).
The exciting results were presented Monday at an HIV/AIDS conference in Paris, known as the International AIDS Society conference.
Swaziland has halved its rates of new HIV infections
According to government data, in 2011 31 percent of adults aged between 18 and 49 years (out of a population of just 1.2 million people) were infected with HIV. Such results made Swaziland the nation with the highest national rate of new infections, said the authors of the new report. The results also made Swaziland the country with the highest proportion of people infected with HIV.
“The rate of new HIV infections had been reduced by half,” said Velephi Okello from the country’s Ministry of Health in Mbabane, according to Seeker. “Remarkable progress has been made… in controlling this HIV epidemic.”
The new data was based on blood samples taken from almost 11,000 people aged 15 and over. The blood tests showed that 27 percent of the population tested positive for HIV last year. The results translated to an infection rate of 1.39 percent among 18 to 49-year-old adults, down from 2.58 percent in 2011, and marking an overall 46 percent reduction.
As part of the health program, over 90 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women in 2016 received preventive treatment, too, to prevent transmission of the virus to their babies. Swaziland’s UN agency noted that as a result, less than 1,000 children became infected with HIV in the country last year.
Male circumcision reduces risk of sexual transmission of HIV
Researchers conducted a survey and found the infection rate was higher among women than men. In Swaziland, men saw an infection rate decline of 52 percent, while women only saw a 40 percent reduction.
The survey also showed that 73 percent of people on ART achieved suppression of the human immunodeficiency virus –which means it does not replicate to make people ill- compared to 35 percent six years ago.
Researchers concluded the overall results were caused by the improved HIV-treatment program. The rate of infected people on ART doubled in five years, from 37 percent in 2011 to 74 percent in 2016. ART stops HIV from replicating and attacking a person’s immune system, and it also prevents patients from spreading the virus to sexual partners.
“Our recipe for success is that we have been able to scale up a lot of the prevention and treatment services in the country,” said Okello. “We have more than doubled the number of people who have started on anti-retroviral treatment, and we have also almost doubled the number of men who have been circumcised in the country.”
The World Health Organization has said there is evidence that shows male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexual sexual transmission of HIV by up to 60 percent in men. Okello warned that despite the promising new results, much more needs to be done to keep reducing HIV rates.
South African girl shows no HIV remission after stopping treatment at early age
Another study presented at the International AIDS Society conference revealed that a South African girl born with HIV has kept her infection suppressed for more than eight years after she stopped taking anti-HIV drugs.
The researchers who presented her case also presented results of tests of shots every month or two of daily pills to treat the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top AIDS specialist, said the results were very promising to help patients stay on treatment. Current HIV drugs keep the virus under control but are required to be taken lifelong.
The South African girl is the third patient in the world who has achieved long remission. The girl, whose identity wasn’t disclosed, started HIV drugs when she was two months old and stopped just after 40 weeks. She was tested when she was 9 ½ years old, and tests found signs of the virus in a small number of immune system cells, but none capable of reproducing.
Fauci explained the girl doesn’t have a gene mutation that presents natural resistance to HIV infection, so her remission was probably possible because of the early treatment.
“Further study is needed to learn how to induce long-term HIV remission in infected babies,” said Fauci, according to CBS News. “However, this new case strengthens our hope that by treating HIV-infected children for a brief period beginning in infancy, we may be able to spare them the burden of lifelong therapy and the health consequences of long-term immune activation typically associated with HIV disease.”