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Are we winning the fight against HIV? A new study found that the virus is becoming resistant to a key anti-retroviral drug, something that should concern us all.

The HIV virus could be all but extinct within a decade, a research team declared — if everyone living in countries with high infection rates was tested, and all those found positive were given drugs whether they had symptoms or not. That declaration was made in 2008, already eight years ago. 

Have we been winning the fight against HIV, then? The answer is complex. The World Health Organization estimates that 35 million people worldwide are HIV positive, with a mere half being aware they have the virus. While less than a single percent of the US population lives with HIV, in Sub-Saharan Africa, it's one out of every 20 adults. Almost 71 percent of all people who have HIV live there.

This is where things get tough: a UN report noted that the rate of new HIV infections fell remarkably between 2001 and 2013, from 3.4 million to 2.3 million. That's on a global level, however, and though that is excellent news, certain populations are still at a very high risk, and that includes those in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Not too long ago, HIV was universally seen as a death sentence. If you live in a developed western nation, the chances are that you have recently seen treatment options presented in a much more positive light — with the right anti-retroviral drugs, HIV-positive people can enjoy a near-normal lifespan in good health. What's more, it is now possible to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, and through a sperm-washing procedure, men with HIV can father children without passing the virus on to their partners. 

While that sounds like a success story, not every person living with HIV has access to expensive anti-retroviral drug treatments, and a in Sub-Saharan Africa, the area that is hardest hit by the virus, access to life-saving drugs is often sporadic at best. 

HIV Becoming Resistant To Key Anti-Retroviral Drug

That, as it turns out, could have very far-reaching consequences. A study newly released in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal and led by University College London made the shocking report that HIV is becoming resistant to one of the key anti-retroviral drugs. The study investigated approximately 2,000 patients globally, and concluded that the HIV virus is now resistant to the drug Tenofovir in 60 percent of cases in several African countries. At the same time, patients in Europe were only resistant to the drug 20 percent of the time. 

Lead author Dr Ravi Gupta called the findings "extremely concerning", because "Tenofovir is a critical part of our armamentarium against HIV". How did the resistance emerge? Dr Gupta told BBC News:

"If the right levels of the drug are not taken, as in they are too low or not regularly maintained, the virus can overcome the drug and become resistant."

In order words, patient misuse of the drug, frequently to a lack of availability on the ground, is responsible for the resistance. Because this HIV drug is not easily accessible to many people in Africa, it may soon become useless. The research team goes on to note that there is evidence that the drug resistant strains of HIV can be transmitted from person to person as well. 

Dr Gupta pointed out that a global effort — as well as serious investment — would be required to fight resistance to HIV drugs. Enabling better monitoring systems and increasing the availability of HIV drugs in Africa is everyone's interest, he pointed out. 

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