HIV superinfection: bad news, times two

By • Published: September 18th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Health-wise, what could be worse than receiving an H-I-V diagnosis?

What about receiving two? Sadly, this really happens. It’s called H-I-V superinfection, and it occurs when a person already diagnosed with the virus contracts a second strain of it. Experts don’t fully understand how superinfection affects people, but research suggests it may lead to drug resistance and faster disease progression.

A group of researchers writing in The Journal of Infectious Diseases studied superinfection among a group of people in the African nation Uganda. They used a new, more precise test for the condition. They found that the rates of new primary H-I-V infections and new superinfections were nearly identical in the study subjects.

Past studies on superinfection have focused on people involved in high-risk activities, such as intravenous drug use and certain sexual behaviors. This study was broader and shows that superinfection in Uganda is more widespread than previously thought. The same might be true elsewhere.

Understanding the prevalence and effects of superinfection, even in faraway places such as Uganda, is important. The many cases of H-I-V superinfection there indicate that people with the disease do not develop an immune response to it that protects them from other strains of the virus.

This has implications for medicine’s decades-long quest to develop an effective anti-H-I-V vaccine. Scientists haven’t yet made such a vaccine, and superinfection means a vaccine specific to one strain of the virus might not fully protect people against the disease. They may need to create a vaccine or a series of them that protects against multiple strains.

The researchers say counseling for newly diagnosed H-I-V patients should emphasize the importance of avoiding superinfection by steering clear of high-risk behaviors. A simple solution, but it could have a big effect.