New HIV Strain Identified

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Following recent reports that an aggressive, new strain of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been identified within the region, local public health authorities remind residents to practice safe sex at all times, whether at home or on travel overseas.

With more than 60 epidemic strains of the HIV-1 virus presently known, the new strain, identified as CRF19, reportedly progresses from infection to the development of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), faster than most previously identified variants. Acting Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Samuel Williams, explains that the new strain is a recombinant form of the virus.

Dr Williams adds, “The recombinant virus strains originate when a person is infected by two different strains, whose DNA fuse to create a new form. Recombinants seem to be more vigorous and more aggressive than the strains from which they developed. In the case of CRF19, patients are reportedly transitioning from infection to AIDS in three years, two-and-a-half years faster than either of the parent strains”.

Coordinator for the Cayman Islands HIV/AIDS programme, Nurse Laura Elniski, notes that when two HIV strains meet in an infected person, (for example if someone infected with one subtype is exposed to a different one) they can exchange bits of their genetic material to create a new virus. That is why it is important for persons including those living with the HIV virus to adhere to treatment regimens, and to practice condom use with partners who also have HIV.

In addition having unprotected sex with multiple partners exposes a person to numerous strains of the HIV virus. Research has found that when this occurs, the different strains can combine and form a new variant of the virus.

According to the most recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently 35 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. The Caribbean region alone is reported as having the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, behind Sub Saharan Africa.

Since the first case of AIDS in the Cayman Islands during 1985, there have been 123 HIV infections. 72 persons have developed AIDS and 43 have died as of November 2014. Currently there are 62 persons living with HIV in the Cayman Islands.

Dr. Williams remarks that such information has long been known, but adds that: “Given the emergence of the new strain of HIV, and regional efforts underway to control the epidemic in the Caribbean and Latin America, it is now more important than ever to practice safe sex”.

Regional efforts to combat the virus have included setting new targets and benchmarks for expanding HIV testing and treatment by 2020, in an effort to reduce new HIV infections, late diagnosis and AIDS-related deaths, as well as to improve the quality of life of people living with HIV.

The Public Health Department in collaboration with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) continues to monitor the situation.

Local public health authorities also urge persons who are sexually active to get tested regularly. An individual’s awareness of their HIV-status plays a key role in preventing infection and lowering the incidence of the disease.

For more information on the prevention of HIV or to make an appointment to be tested, persons should contact the STI /HIV Coordinator on 244 2507 or Therese Prehay, Health Promotion Officer on 244-2632.

Know More about HIV and HIV Testing

Protect yourself against HIV:
• Abstinence is safest
• Have a sexual relationship with only one uninfected person, who is having sex with only you.
• Use a condom for high risk behaviour; e.g. having multiple sexual partners.
• Don't share any kind of needles.
• Remember: A condom when used consistently and correctly is the single most effective method in preventing recurrent sexually transmitted infection, which includes HIV.

What is HIV Testing?
The HIV test looks for antibodies in a person's blood. When HIV (which is a virus) enters a person's body, special chemicals are produced. These are called antibodies. Antibodies are the body's response to an infection.

What does HIV testing involve?
A small sample of blood will be taken from your arm, sent to a laboratory and tested for antibodies. The test is always strictly confidential

What is a positive HIV test?
HIV positive means that antibodies to HIV were detected. It means that the person is infected with HIV (except in infants born to HIV- positive mothers, who may retain the maternal antibodies for some months).

What is a negative HIV Test?
HIV negative means that antibodies to HIV were not detected. In almost all cases this means the person is not infected with HIV. Most people develop the antibodies within three months of infection. In rare cases it can take up to six months. It is good for the test to be repeated three months later and even at six months, just to be extra sure.
The time between infection and the development of antibodies is called the window period. In the window period people infected with HIV have no antibodies in their blood that can be detected by an HIV test. The test is only accurate if there are no other exposures between the time of exposure to HIV and testing.

Source: Public Health Department.

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