CHAPEL HILL - Scientists have discovered high levels of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in the saliva, spinal fluid, semen and vaginal fluid, as well as in the blood, of patients newly infected by the virus, according to a new medical study. They believe their work suggests an important strategy for curbing the worldwide epidemic.
"The levels we found were as high or higher than those we see in people with long-standing infection," said Dr. Christopher D. Pilcher, assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But our patients had all been infected within the previous three months. Their body fluids had high concentrations of virus even within two to three weeks of the beginning of symptoms."
Flu-like symptoms are often the first signs of the deadly infection during the first weeks after first contracting HIV, the period scientists call "primary HIV infection." These symptoms are far less debilitating than those patients with full-blown AIDS experience and can include fever, muscle aches, rash, swollen glands and, sometimes, sore throat, Pilcher said. Those symptoms sent the 17 patients to the doctor for treatment in the first place.
A second key finding was that virus levels, which scientists call "viral load," dropped rapidly in all fluids analyzed after doctors began treating patients with the latest drugs, he said. Earlier, the UNC team and other researchers proved the drugs worked during chronic infections, but their effect on primary infection was unknown.
"Together, these findings suggest that combination anti-retroviral therapy -- the HIV 'cocktail' therapy -- is a potential avenue for public health intervention," Pilcher said. "In other words, such treatment could become a public health strategy to reduce shedding of virus from semen and vaginal fluid especially and possibly reduce the number of people contracting the virus to begin with."