Medical advances no substitute for safe sex practices

This week the world learned about a stunning new development in the global battle against AIDS.

This week the world learned about a stunning new development in the global battle against AIDS.

Like everything else in the world of medicine and science, however, hopes raised by a single insight will take years to become widely useful, if the initial findings are sustained at all.

A baby born with AIDS in Mississippi seems to have been cured of the HIV infection that causes AIDS, researchers from the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School disclosed on Sunday.

That has only been known to happen once before, under highly uncommon conditions. In that case, an AIDS-infected man in Germany was being treated for leukemia.

AIDS infects the bone marrow. When it was removed and replaced in this man’s case, the disease went with it.

That’s not a process that will be readily repeated. The baby case disclosed this week might have much wider implications.

It arose with a pregnant Mississippi mother, infected with AIDS.

The baby was born with AIDS and was immediately treated with infection-killing medication.

When released from hospital, the mother was given drugs for her baby and instructions on how and when to give them.

After 18 months of treatment, the mother stopped medicating her baby.

Until now, that would have been a death sentence. But when physicians learned of the treatment gap and tested five months later, the baby was found to be free of AIDS.

This was a shocking and unprecedented development.

It’s not a therapy that any doctor would condone, but it does offer a small glimmer of hope for an affliction that has been considered incurable. There are problems with what to do with the findings.

No reputable researcher would knowingly repeat the experiment by taking an AIDS-infected infant off drugs that are known to help contain the affliction.

More fundamentally, the scope and scale of treatment this one child received is far beyond the capacity of health providers where AIDS is most rampant.

Around the globe, about 1.7 million people died of AIDS in 2011, the World Health Organization reports. Twenty-nine of the 30 worst-infected nations are in Africa, with rates ranging from 65 to 1,100 per 100,000 people. (Canada ranks 118th with a rate of 1.1 cases per 100,000 population.)

Many African children are now raised by their grandparents or siblings because both parents died of AIDS.

Worst of all, AIDS is a disease of choice. It starts with people who are unfaithful to their partners. It is sustained by promiscuous participants who refuse to wear condoms or insist that their partners do.

Its first victims are the generally young adults who behave recklessly, become infected and die.

Its secondary victims are more heart-breaking: the millions of young children orphaned by AIDS.

Steady progress is being made around the world to prevent, limit and cure this deadly affliction, including here at home.

Last year, the Alberta government announced the number of newly reported HIV and AIDS cases reported fell to 192, down 12 and 18 per cent from the two previous years.

For years, Alberta has had the highest infection rates of any province in Canada. We are now moving closer to the norm.

The not-so good news is that rates for other sexually transmitted diseases are still high and growing.

Chlamydia rates in Alberta doubled between 2000-2012.

Twice as many gonorrhea cases were detected here in 2010 than a decade before.

Parts of that trend are driven by demographics and economics. Alberta’s population is young, growing and affluent.

More people, more money and more liquor and drugs mean more bad decisions and more sexually transmitted diseases.

Not surprisingly, the highest rates are found in our fastest-growing demographics: young Alberta aboriginals. The provincial government is working hard to keep stupid sexual decisions from turning into fatal ones.

This week, Alberta Health announced it would initiate a quick new AIDS test in some Alberta hospitals this year.

The standard test now provides results in 10 days. The new one does it in 10 minutes.

Health managers hope this program will encourage more Albertans to be tested.

The better approach, of course, would be for horny folks to spend 10 minutes thinking about when, how and with whom they wanted to have sex before jumping into the sack.

Every advance on the sexual health front is encouraging, from the long-term dream of curing AIDS to the short-term bridge of quicker tests.

Neither, however is a substitute for letting the impetuous little head rule the big one.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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