05/19/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

HIV Can End


We should not expect that HIV/AIDS will be cured in our lifetime. If the human immunodeficiency virus is going to be eliminated from the gay community, it will have to happen through the work of generations of gay men cooperating with doctors, public health officials, and each other.

Despite the tantalizing headlines about this or that new possible cure, I do not believe that HIV will be solved by the magic wand of science. News articles fill my Facebook about every great new hope in the fight against the virus; however, they give us a false sense of security in science's power to save us. There's the jaw-dropping story of the American in Berlin who was cured of AIDS through stem cell transplant. Babies in Mississippi and California have been cured of HIV at birth recently. A Japanese company even discovered that a flavor-enhancing molecule for soy sauce may be much more potent than the current nucleoside analogues used to treat the virus.

Since the discovery of the HIV in 1983, researchers have perpetually promised a solution just right around the corner. The human costs are so significant in this battle, any advancement in the fight against HIV is an honorable achievement. My high school biology teacher told us about the folksy possibilities of pokeweed -- a Southern side-of-the-road plant that is only edible after multiple boilings, lest it poison you. Researchers found the plant contained antiviral proteins useful for HIV treatment, which was no surprise because the Native Americans grated it on wounds to help the healing process. It was a terrific story of science and nature coming together, but it was just another small step towards a possible solution.

After 30 years of work, the medical achievements in HIV care have been quite astounding. We've come to the point where newly diagnosed HIV patients can find treatment in all-in-one, once-a-day Stribild; they face sustainable, yet expensive futures. Vaccination trials are being held all over the world, and some vaccinations may even cure existing infections! It seems like we should be on the precipice of some miraculous achievement in HIV research, but an effective, affordable cure for HIV is likely very far off.

Lentiviruses like HIV are cunning creatures -- they can lay dormant in host cells during infection and treatment -- waiting to roar into the immune system when given the chance. Even if a trick is undetectable, a man in Germany is cured, and babies in America are virus-free -- viral proteins can sleep deeper in organs and tissues than doctors can see. Whether or not HIV can be completely extinguished from inside the body is unknown. Curing a person with HIV would take additional, un-researched drugs in possibly toxic amounts. Many companies see cure-based research as an unprofitable dead-end, as opposed to profitable long-term care.

An HIV-cure stands against virology, capitalism, and toxicology as barriers to discovery. As much as I love a good science story about the next new great HIV solution, I just see public-relations promises to keep us faithful in researchers. What's more likely than a cure is that HIV could be turned into an non-issue -- or at least "culturally cured" within the gay community. This will mean that we reduce HIV infections, generation by generation, until the virus is an artifact of our darker past. HIV could also be rendered meaningless by all sorts of pharmacopeia -- drugs and vaccines to prevent us from becoming infected or passing the virus on to other people. We might end HIV's grasp on our psyche -- even if it is still transmitted, stigma and fear of the virus could fade from our memory. We need to create a cure, not wait for one.