Thirty years after HIV first started to make global headlines, it's still doing it, but this time for what is deceptively good news.
At this week's International AIDS Conference in Kuala Lumpur, there was the remarkable announcement that two previously HIV-positive men no longer had any trace of the virus after receiving stem cell transplants to treat their respective cancers (the announcement comes at 14:04 in the video below). This follows a similar case reported last year when a man diagnosed with leukaemia and infected with HIV also appeared to be cured after a stem cell transplant. News coverage of this development has been global.
At first blush, this seems like the breakthrough researchers have been searching for, as the cure for HIV has remained elusive despite significant investment and major advances in treatment. But anyone who has expertise in or even experience of stem cell transplants knows that this process is very unlikely to be HIV's silver bullet.
Stem cell transplants used to treat life-threatening blood and bone cancers are themselves life-threatening. The procedure is complex and while there have been significant improvements in survival rates, the risk of death from the side effects of stem cell transplants is still unacceptably high. On top of that, these procedures are expensive and therefore don't readily translate into an affordable, across-the-board option, particularly in developing countries where the HIV epidemic has its strongest grip.
But what this discovery does is offer greater insight into the makeup and behaviour of this virus which has killed around 35 million people in the three decades since its discovery. Australia has been a global leader in the response to HIV which in part is why the incidence of HIV/AIDS-related deaths in the same period in Australia comparatively low at around 7000.
HIV is a unique disease in the way it has broken free from the confines of being treated solely as a medical phenomenon.
It has brought together the most unlikely international collection of advocates and activists. Because of its tendency to impact disproportionately on society's minorities and marginalised — the gay community, sex workers, injecting drug users, women in developing countries, prisoners — its existence has shed powerful spotlights on human rights abuse which in turn has brought eminent jurists and human rights activists, including Justice Michael Kirby, into the colourful fold.
The pace of infection in the 1990s led to major funding initiatives in the 2000s which have reshaped international health funding. Its impact on the social and economic fibre of communities has led some governments to adopt innovative policies and practices previously considered dangerous, even illegal, such as Australia's clean needle exchange programs. And along the way, it has enlisted a swag of celebrities and global leaders as champions of the cause: Bill Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kofi Annan, Bono, Richard Gere, Bill Gates, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John, Kylie Minogue and on it goes.
Medical researchers haven't been left behind — they are leading characters in this broad church of a community.
Every two years, this disease becomes the focal point for a mega conference which brings the entire church together to debate where this pernicious disease is going and how to arrest it. Last year's conference was in Washington. The next one, the 20th, will be in Melbourne in 2014. It's expected to attract 14,000 international participants, making it the largest conference ever held in Australia. Co-chairing will be two of the world's most important medical researchers into HIV: France's Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine for her contribution to the discovery of the virus, and Australia's Sharon Lewin.
These conferences are always a heady and challenging mix for the country hosting, as the colourful array of participants whose professions, predilections and health status can push the boundaries on a range of immigration and policing policies. HIV has always had a tendency to challenge orthodox policy and so it's only fitting that a conference dedicated to it does the same.