People With HIV Could Soon Stay Healthy — Without Taking Any Pills

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A needle may be the answer for those Americans living with HIV, for whom treatment is a hard pill to swallow. 

In the trial backed by Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, people living with the virus were given a shot containing two drugs every four or eight weeks. At both intervals, the shot worked just as well as people who were taking three pills per day to suppress their virus, Reuters reports.  

Paul Stoffels, head of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, told Reuters that the findings were "transformational" in the fight against HIV. Stoffels said he believed the long-acting injection could help improve the lives of those living with HIV by 2020. 

The numbers: The study found that 94% of participants who received the monthly injection were viral suppressed 32 weeks into the trial, and 95% or those who got the shot every two months. By comparison, 91% of people on pill-based regimens achieved an undetectable viral load, according to Reuters.

The human immunodeficiency virus takes over a body's white blood cells and turns them into factories that make more HIV. Those white blood cells, which fight off disease, are no longer able to do so. The number of viral copies in a person's body is called someone's viral load. 

When HIV treatment is successful, a person is considered to be HIV undetectable, meaning the amount of virus in their blood is not able to be detected by many tests. Being HIV undetectable significantly reduces the chance of transmitting the virus. 

Source: The Stigma Project
Source: The Stigma Project

Public health benefits: 2014 PARTNER study found that, out of hundreds of thousands of sex acts between thousands of mixed-status couples, not one person contracted HIV from their partner. In each couple, the HIV-positive partner was undetectable and couples involved did not use condoms 100% of the time. 

Currently, about 50,000 people each year are diagnosed with HIV. Of those 50,000 infections, 91% are the result of an HIV-positive person not knowing their status or not being in care. 

One of the trial drugs, rilpivirine (Edurant), is already widely used to treat HIV. The second, cabotegravir, is still being studied by the FDA. 

Having an alternative method of helping people stay HIV undetectable is important for public health and the personal health of those living with the virus. Currently, only 30% of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. are undetectable. 

Source: Roberto Borea/AP
Source: Roberto Borea/AP

What makes a person non-adherent to their medications differs from person to person. Everything from having to take too many pills to not having enough food to eat is associated with HIV treatment failure. One 2012 study also showed that poverty, as well as the stress associated with poverty, is a huge deterrent to staying undetectable and healthy.