False claims about HIV "cures" are frequently shared on social media ( AFP / MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB)

There is no cure yet for HIV infection, but scientists are working on finding one

Copyright © AFP 2017-2023. All rights reserved.

Myths, false claims and outright lies have persisted in the HIV epidemic era and are as old as the infection itself. One of the cruelest claims was the "virgin cleansing" myth that took hold in Southern Africa where some men believed they could be cured of the virus by having sex with virgin girls. It led to the rape of many women including minors. Recently, a post advertising a "herbal cure" for HIV was shared on Facebook in Kenya. However, the claim is false; to date, there is no cure for the infection and only three people in the world have been reported cured of HIV through stem cell transplant.

“As independent researcher, i have achieved a milestone in regards to HIV treatment and cure. We have in record treated hundreds of people in our clinic whom have been confirmed HIV free (sic),” reads a section of the Facebook post. It was published on November 23, 2022, and has since been shared over 160 times.

Screenshot showing the false post, taken on January 16, 2023

The post was published on a page called "HIV/AIDs CURE" that purports to provide a "complete cure" to people living with HIV. The page was created in May 2020 under the name “Betika Odds” and has since changed its name more than three times.

The post also features two images of a red liquid packaged in plastic containers labelled “SUPER LIFE...HIV/AIDS.”

But there is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS.

No cure yet

The World Health Organization, the United Nations specialised agency for health, says on its website that “there is no cure for HIV infection,” but due to increasing access to effective prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care, the infection has become a manageable condition.

In May 2022, Dr. Fode Simanga, director of sciences, systems, and services at UNAIDS told AFP Fact Check that even though there is no treatment yet for HIV, “there are effective treatments which, if taken early and regularly, can lead to a long and healthy life.”

People living with HIV can be treated with antiretroviral (ARV) medicines which work by stopping the virus replicating in the body.

"When a person living with HIV is on effective antiretroviral therapy, they are no longer infectious," added Dr. Simanga.

If taken as prescribed, ARVs reduce the amount of HIV in the body to exceptionally low levels, which keeps the immune system working thus preventing illness. This is called viral suppression. ARVs can even make the viral load so low that a test cannot detect it, which is called an undetectable viral load.

The Facebook post also claims that some people do not get infected with HIV despite having unprotected sex with HIV positive people.

This is true; according to the UK’s National Institute of Health, an infected person with a low viral load (undetectable viral load) can stay healthy and will not transmit HIV to others through sex, syringe or even breastfeeding.

As of June 2021, 28.7 million people living with HIV in the world were accessing antiretroviral therapy.

Stem cell transplants

So far, only three people have been reported cured of HIV in the world.

In 2022, a patient in the US with leukemia became the first woman and the third person to be cured of HIV after receiving a stem cell transplant from a donor who was naturally resistant to the virus that causes AIDS.

The two prior cases occurred in male subjects who had received stem cells, which are frequently used in bone marrow transplants.

Timothy Brown, also known as the “Berlin Patient,” was cured of both HIV and leukaemia in 2008 following a stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that eradicated both diseases.

He died in September 2020 after a recurrence of leukaemia.

In 2018, Adam Castillejo who lived in London was revealed to be in remission 19 months after undergoing a similar procedure.

Other claims

The post makes three other claims. It says that HIV patients also test positive for gastrointestinal infection; most people living with HIV have a bacteria called Treponema pallidum which causes syphilis; and alcoholics are vulnerable to the disease.

While the first and third claims are true, the second is misleading.

According to the NIH, it is common for patients with HIV to have upper gastrointestinal symptoms, which can range from difficulty swallowing to pain upon swallowing.

Studies support the claim that alcoholics are more vulnerable to contracting HIV. Research shows that people with alcohol use disorders are more likely than the general population to contract HIV.

However, it is not obvious that HIV patients are also infected with Treponema pallidum bacteria unless they have syphilis. But it is true that syphilis is caused by bacterium Treponema pallidum and genital sores caused by syphilis make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV sexually.