Is there a vaccine for HIV?
HIV attacks the immune system. There is no cure for HIV, but there are many methods of preventing it. One example is always using protection when having sexual intercourse.
There is currently no vaccine for HIV, but scientists are working to develop one. It’s difficult as the virus can change itself to escape the antibodies created. But even the failed trials help researchers learn more about the virus and how to fight it.
HIV treatments today are well tolerated and often result in the virus levels becoming undetectable, especially when treated early. This helps prevent transmission to others.
What is HIV?
This condition kills an essential element of the human immune system called T cells. This reduces how well our immune system can fight infections.
HIV transmission to other people can happen through any of the following ways:
- having unprotected sexual intercourse
- sharing needles and syringes
- perinatally during pregnancy, childbirth, or nursing
When untreated, HIV can be life threatening. An HIV vaccine would stimulate the immune system to produce an immune response to protect your body from an HIV infection.
To avoid getting HIV, make sure you always wear protection during sexual intercourse. If you’re at risk of contracting HIV, a healthcare professional may also prescribe you preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
This is a prevention treatment plan available for people that have sexual partners with HIV or for people that have had unprotected intercourse. It can reduce the risk of getting HIV by up to 99%.
Are HIV vaccines under development?
Scientists are working on developing an HIV vaccine, but this is very challenging due to the changeable nature of the virus. It’s extremely rare for someone to clear an HIV infection by themselves. Due to these complexities, every HIV vaccine created has been ineffective.
Scientists are now trying to develop new vaccines that can trigger the production of specific T cells and antibodies to make our immune system resistant to HIV.
The vaccines that researchers are trying to develop are based on three different types of mechanisms. These include:
- B-cell immunogens: B-cells have an important role in creating antibodies. Scientists are trying to create B-cell immunogens that can stimulate the production of HIV antibodies to prevent an HIV infection.
- T-cell immunogens: This consists of studying how T-cells react when they get in contact with HIV. Scientists are developing T-cell immunogens that are highly reactive to many different HIV variants and can trigger a prompt immune reaction.
- Viral vector replication: Scientists are trying to create an HIV vector that can infect cells and trigger the production of an HIV antigen that can prevent future infections.
- Messenger RNA: Similar to COVID-19 vaccines, researchers are trying to create a synthesis of a protein that can send the immune system an instruction and stimulate the production of HIV antibodies.
One 2020 review of several studies and vaccine trials notes that developing a vaccine that stimulates both the innate (a general response to any antigen) and adaptive (a specific response to a particular antigen) immune systems should be the future research focus.
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How to prevent HIV
It is possible to prevent HIV. Prevention methods for HIV may include:
- taking PrEP
- wearing condoms during sexual intercourse
- avoiding sharing needles with other people
You may also consider taking postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you think you’ve had HIV exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should only use it in emergency situations. You should take it within 72 hours of the possible exposure.
Following these procedures can reduce the risk of getting an HIV infection.
PrEP is a medication people can take to substantially reduce the risk of HIV infection. When taken as prescribed, PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infections during sexual intercourse by about 99% and around 74% for people who are injecting drugs.
PrEP consists of a prevention treatment plan in which people without HIV take one or more medications daily to reduce the risk of getting HIV if they have contact with the virus in the future.
Currently, the only licensed PrEP treatments include three antiretroviral drugs:
Cabotegravir is an injectable option, also known by the brand-name drug Apretude. This is given by a healthcare professional every two months.
Healthcare professionals may prescribe you PrEP if any of the following apply to you:
- You had sex in the last 6 months without consistently using condoms, your partner has HIV, or you have recently received an STD diagnosis.
- You inject drugs and your partner has HIV or you share needles or any other injection equipment.
- You are considering getting pregnant and your partner has HIV.
If you take PrEP, you may experience side effects that usually go away over time. These may include:
There is no current cure or vaccine for HIV. But HIV prevention methods are available, and people with this condition can follow a treatment plan that can help them lead an active life.
A healthcare professional may also prescribe you PrEP if you’ve had unprotected intercourse or have sexual partners with HIV.
HIV treatments today can result in undetectable levels of the virus in the body. This helps to prevent transmission to others.
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- Ng'uni T, et al. (2020). Major scientific hurdles in HIV vaccine development: Historical perspective and future directions. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2020.590780/full
- PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis). (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/pep.html
- Pollara J, et al. (2017). Lessons learned from human HIV vaccine trials. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5389590/
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis. (2022). https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/hiv-prevention/using-hiv-medication-to-reduce-risk/pre-exposure-prophylaxis/
- Vaccines. (2020). https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/vaccines
- Viral load and being undetectable. (n.d.). https://www.tht.org.uk/hiv-and-sexual-health/about-hiv/viral-load-and-being-undetectable