Researchers at this week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have suggested a way to virtually wipe out AIDs over the next several decades. They propose the aggressive use of blanket HIV testing and anti-AIDS drugs.
As scientists continue to turn up empty-handed in the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS, some researchers are focusing their attention on what some consider to be the only real success so far in the war against HIV - anti-retroviral drugs that suppress the viral load, or amount of virus in the blood, to such low levels that HIV-positive individuals are virtually non-infectious.
AIDS researchers with the South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis (SACEMA) are proposing a strategy for blanket testing for the majority of the world's most at-risk populations and putting those who are found to be HIV-positive on a lifetime course of anti-AIDS drugs.
The center's director, John Hargrove, says educational programs aimed at getting people to avoid risky behavior have so far not worked very well.
Increased use of anti-retroviral drugs hasn't helped much either, Hargrove says, because treatment generally comes too late in the course of the disease of many individuals.
But according to a mathematical model, Hargrove says a program of early testing and treatment could turn the epidemic around in three decades.
"If in fact you get people very soon after they are HIV-positive and put them on anti-retrovirals, you reduce the aggregate viral load in the entire population. Therefore you will reduce the rate at which new infections occur," he said.
Success will not come quickly. Hargrove says there will continue to be a lot of new HIV infections for a while.
"But slowly as people die out, as we all do die, and you are just preventing more new infections," he said. "And the mathematics simply indicates if we manage to do this, if we manage to test people once a year and get them immediately on antiretroviral drugs, this will be the logical outcome," said Hargrove.
More than 30 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, which claims two million lives each year.
Trials are under way or about to begin in the US, Canada and sub-Saharan Africa to see whether giving antiretroviral drugs to uninfected individuals in high risk populations lowers transmission rates. In studies of mother-to-child transmission, anti-AIDS drugs reduce the risk of infection from HIV positive mothers to their uninfected newborns by more than ninety percent.
Hargrove acknowledges that some people might consider blanket testing an invasion of privacy, which is why it would be voluntary.
"It would just be suggested to people very strongly that they may want to consider having an HIV test and knowing the result. And that if they are HIV-positive and if they want to, they will have free anti-retrovirals and they will have it for the rest of their lives," he said.
The program would be extremely expensive, costing up to $3 billion a year in South Africa alone.