HIV Vaccine Challenges

from Erie County HIV Task Force

It's been over four decades since HIV was reported in the US. Since then, many have asked 'Why isn't there a cure or a vaccine for HIV?' While there are vaccine trials underway [more on that next month], understanding the difficulty of discovering one is important to the future of Ending the HIV Epidemic. Among the viruses our bodies fight off, HIV is unique due to its ability to avoid creating an immune system response to end or contain infection. Most viruses produce an immune response which clears the body of the infection, sometimes without medication needed. Think of how with a cold or the flu, we experience symptoms of our immune system fighting the virus and eliminating it; such as a fever, body aches, etc. While it has been documented that very few people in the world have managed to do this to HIV and not using antiretrovirals, most individuals living with HIV require life-long medication therapy.

HIV is sneaky and master of disguises while covering its surface proteins in a coating of sugar molecules which prevent our immune system from having antibodies locate and attach to the virus. Plus, HIV itself reproduces rapidly with genetic variables creating challenges to nail it down while the virus also takes over the body's immune cell response by turning T-cells into breeding cells. Today's antiretroviral meds suppress HIV to undetectable levels. While this has been huge for improving the lives of patients, HIV itself is a retrovirus; hiding deep inside our DNA making it invisible to the immune system. This is why we stress the importance of not only being in-care, but consistently taking medication to prevent HIV from reproducing at high numbers and overtaking the body again. And like all treated conditions, we also have the additional challenge in avoiding drug resistance.

Ultimately, the key to a future HIV vaccine is about finding a way to prevent the virus from taking hold upon entering the body. Stopping HIV in its tracks before hijacking T-cells would significantly reduce new infections. To achieve this, current research continues to chip away at determine the most effective wide-ranging method of the blocking HIV from replicating. Next month we'll cover some of the current HIV vaccine trials underway and what their potential holds. For more information or to submit questions, contact the Erie County HIV Task Force at 814-315-3375 or

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