Some people discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis nowadays as a problem of the past, but it is important to know there is still no vaccine that will prevent infection or cure those who carry the virus today. But that all is possibly about to change. A breakthrough discovery on the virus by a team of US researchers earlier this month holds potential for a vaccine.

Despite current AIDS/HIV crisis awareness efforts, the number of people infected by the virus every year continues to climb. There are now 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, and last year that number grew by more than 50,000.

Vaccines historically have been the most effective means to prevent and completely eradicating infectious diseases. They teach your body’s immune system to recognize and defend against harmful viruses, allowing your body to set up defenses against those dangers ahead of time. Vaccines, also known as shots or immunizations, safely and cost-effectively prevent illness, physical and mental disability, and death, so why haven’t we developed a HIV vaccine in the last 30 years?

Like the smallpox or polio vaccine, a preventive vaccine could help save millions of lives, but HIV vaccine development has faced a unique set of challenges. To put it simply, no one has ever naturally recovered from the HIV virus, so therefore it’s very difficult to model of natural immunity to base a vaccine off of- but recent US developments in a search for a vaccine reveal it’s not impossible.

There was huge news in regards to a potential HIV vaccine announced last week by a team of scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They discovered a new vulnerable site on HIV for a vaccine to target, a broadly neutralizing antibody that binds to that target site, and how the antibody stops the virus from infecting a human cell.

The researchers are now working to create a vaccine designed to draw out antibodies that can bind to the virus and keep it from infecting human cells.The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative maintains a database of current and past AIDS vaccine trials, sorted by status, trial phase, and strategy.

How does today’s HIV/AIDS crisis management look compared to the 1980s and 1990s?

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, people infected faced certain death just a few years after infection. Today the lives of those infected with the virus (HIV positive) have much better quality of life, as well as longer and productive lives. A 2013 study found that Gay men with the virus can expect to live to an average age of 77, while hispanics and other minorities are diagnosed much later and are less likely to receive proper treatment.

Daily preventive pills called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, have been around the last ten years. They allow HIV-negative individuals at risk to take an antiviral every day to prevent infection. Some people complain about nausea, vomiting,fatigue, and dizziness, with these minor symptoms eventually resolving themselves over time. Unfortunately, these preventative treatment PrEP pills costs between $8,000 and $14,000 per year and are very costly for middle to lower income families. Before these daily medications, there was absolutely no preventative option for the virus. It’s cost is likely to restrict its use to only the highest-risk individuals in a population, therefore these pill make a minor impact on overall HIV incidence.

The course of action to make testing for HIV accessible and distributing current medications is huge. Before heavy research was done to understand the nature of the virus, touching or treating a patient that was HIV positive or had developed AIDS was considered risky and unsafe.Now programs and centers who aim to implement widespread HIV testing with immediate treatment are lowering the overall spread of the infection in affected communities. A 2013 NIH supported study found that testing accounts for a 13.8% reduction in HIV infections over the course of 10 years. The study concluded that HIV testing would be more effective at curbing incidence of the virus if testing was more convenient and results were more immediate.

How HIV/AIDS is adversely affecting the Hispanic/Latino community

The spread of HIV and AIDS is far from over and is having a particularly alarming impact on the hispanic/latino community. In 2005, HIV/AIDS was the fourth leading cause of death among Hispanic/Latino men and women aged 35 to 44. As of the end of 2006, AIDS claimed the lives of an estimated 80,690 Hispanics/Latinos in the United States.

A recent study by the CDC predicts that ¼ of all latino gay men living in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes.

While hispanics and latinos represent just 13% of the total U.S. population, they account for approximately 23% of new infections annually, according to the CDC.

Why is there a higher risk of viral infections in latinos and hispanics? Studies have found that Hispanics/latinos are less likely to be tested for HIV early on, and by the time they do get tested for the virus, they are more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS.

It’s important to also consider that, for hispanics, language, cultural barriers, higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, limited access and knowledge of the US health care system can delay treatment.

Wait, what exactly is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

To clarify the difference between AIDS and HIV, HIV is a virus that has the potential to cause an infection and weaken the immune system while AIDS is an actual condition or a syndrome. Left without treatment, the majority of people infected with the virus will develop signs of HIV-related illness within 5–10 years, although this can be shorter.

5 Things that you can do

  • Stay informed on vaccine awareness- just by reading this article you are helping!
  • If sexually active, get yourself tested.
  • Let others know you support vaccine research by having conversations or posting on social media.
  • Support vaccine volunteers financially if you can or volunteer at a center that offers testing and treatment.
  • Get involved by joining a community advisory board and make a point of putting vaccine awareness on the agenda.

PrEP daily drug regimens along with behavioral modifications are highly effective for those who can access and afford them and maintain their vigilance, but vaccines remain the most equitable and promising route to ending the deadly viral epidemic worldwide.