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Why a monthly HIV injection is a huge medical breakthrough

HIV patients will soon have a choice beyond daily pills. Credit: ITV News

How much do you know about HIV? Probably not very much. Very few people know much about it because it only effects just over hundred thousand people in the UK.

Did you know that when a patient is on successful treatment, the virus is so suppressed that they can’t pass it on to anyone else? They have a normal life (whatever that is!) and a normal life expectancy. That treatment is usually just one pill, taken everyday at the same time.

But imagine if that one pill was a simple injection, taken once a month. Now stop imagining because that could be the reality in just over a year’s time.

Clinical trials of an injection containing two types of drugs have shown that it has similar efficacy to drugs taken everyday. In other words, 12 doses of drugs a year will keep the virus just as suppressed as it does taking 365 doses of drugs a year. To say it's a huge medical leap forward would be an understatement.

12
HIV treatment could be reduced from 365 dosing days to just 12
2020/21
a predicted timeframe for the treatment reaching patients
101,600
the estimated number of people living with HIV in the UK - Terence Higgins Trust

Chloe Orkin is a clinical professor in HIV at Queen Mary University of London. Her patients used to take 30 pills a day, three times a day, some with horrible side effects. She says this is a "paradigm shift" because treatment used to be so different and even uses the word "exciting" which medics rarely use.

"Taking pills for a very long time is quite onerous and a burden," Professor Orkin says when discussing the potential transformative impact on patients.

"People live very busy lives and they sometimes forget - taking a tablet for HIV is a reminder that they are HIV positive and this is something they don't want to think about. We are constantly telling our patients they can live normal lives - but taking that pill every day in stigmatised communities may be difficult."

What has struck me about this development is that it really could help destigmatise the disease. A once a month injection, which keeps the virus at bay, allows patients to live with it openly or indeed privately. It gives them choice. It is also far less burdensome than daily pills and is a step closer to being treated the same as other viruses like Herpes.

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has developed the treatment and will now apply to US and EU regulators to get it licensed. If successful they could start offering it to patients as early as 2020/21.

Professor Orkin ends our interview by telling us: "If you'd asked me 20 years ago, whether there would be a monthly treatment for HIV, I'd would never have believed it were possible."

That's how far and fast we've come.

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