A new strain of the human immunodeficiency virus has been discovered in Cuba. Patients infected with this form of HIV develop full-blown AIDS within three years, as opposed to the standard six to ten years. “The unexpectedly rapid progression of this HIV variant increases the risk that patients become very ill before ever realizing that they are infected,” according to a report by researchers at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven.
Cuban officials as well as medical experts based in southern Florida are extremely worried. If left untreated, this HIV variant may become an epidemic among newly infected patients.
“We knew that sooner or later we were going to face this locally,’’ said Hector Bolivar, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Miami. “Cuba is local for Miami. We may see similar situations here in Miami in the future, and that’s something I’m concerned about.”
Researchers have known for years that different forms of HIV can recombine and form new strains. Currently, over 60 strains of HIV can be found throughout the world. Typically, the mutations come about when infected persons have unprotected sex with multiple partners. They contract multiple strains of HIV, which then recombine within the host to form a new variation of the virus.
Although there is a relatively low prevalence of HIV in Cuba, there are an astonishingly wide variety of different strains present on the island. In comparison, on all of the other Caribbean nations, there is one type nearly exclusively. 94 percent of infected persons have subtype B according to an international study of the region recently published in EBioMedicine.
In a normal HIV infection, the virus anchors itself to receptor points located on the outside of the cell membrane in order to enter the host’s cells. Most strains of HIV use the receptor point known as CCR5. Infected patients may host the virus like this for many years and remain relatively healthy. Eventually, the virus switches to the receptor known as CXCR4. This switch corresponds with the transition from HIV to AIDS.
The new strain of the virus found in Cuba does not delay in attaching to the CXCR4 receptor. Therefore, infected patients rapidly progress from HIV to AIDS.
The initial study that discovered this strain is considered too limited to officially say the new strain will cause an epidemic- the sample size was only 95 patients. However, health officials in both Cuba and Florida are preparing for the worst.