A cure for AIDS: fact or fiction?

Located on a remote stretch of the Tanzania-Kenya border, Loliondo area attracts thousands of daily visitors, who flock to the retired pastor Ambilikile Mwasapile and his controversial “miracle” herbal cure.
Credit: Jonathan Kalan

As international scientists work to find a cure for the AIDS virus, promising treatments for HIV's worst symptoms have emerged. For years, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs have increased the length and quality of life for many living with HIV and AIDS dramatically.

In a boost for researchers earlier this year, two men who had suffered HIV for years may now be free of the disease following bone marrow transplants, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston said in July, CBS News reported.

Scientists told ABC News the bone marrow finding is "significant" because it suggests that giving patients transplants while they were on anti-retroviral therapy may have cured them of the AIDS-causing virus.

However, many patients around the world continue to turn to more affordable but far less reliable treatments — including supposed miracle remedies with little to no scientific basis. These interventions, founded in belief rather than biology, can in fact worsen the spread of HIV.

From electric zappers and herbal potions to hydrogen peroxide baths and virgin cleansing, so-called "cures" for HIV and AIDS have been popping up since the syndrome came to public attention in the 1980s, says

In Africa in particular, most people can't afford ARV drugs, and due to their cultural beliefs many seek the help of a traditional healer before they will see a doctor.

That was the case for a top Johannesburg chat-show host and DJ, Fana Khaba, who shunned new drugs in 2004 believing miracle healers had the answer, the Guardian reported. 

One of the more bizarre interventions Khaba tried was a diet called "Africa's Solution" — a juice fast comprising lemon, olive oil, garlic and beetroot. Touted as a vitamin-based immune system booster, Khaba drank this concoction as the disease ravaged his weakening body. He died the same year. 

More from GlobalPost: Tanzania: Thousands trek to 'miracle healer' who promises HIV cure

Health workers hope increased awareness and further research into the virus will help eradicate the spread of HIV. Both of those efforts were boosted in July 2012 by the announcement of a road map for international AIDS specialists to find a cure, Fox News reported.

A widespread myth prevails in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas in which men believe they can be cured of AIDS by having sex with a virgin. Disturbingly, this only increases the spread to young girls, and has resulted in a sharp rise in the rape of babies. 

Mirian Banda, chairperson of The Network of Zambian People Living with HIV/Aids, said bogus cures are increasing the death toll of patients because many of the so-called healers advising patients insist their clients avoid all other treatments, including potentially lifesaving ARV medicines. 

“Zambia has already seen numerous examples of claims to cure HIV, all of which have proven to be untrue, confusing, and regrettably lethal, since they draw HIV-positive people away from proper ways of dealing with their status,” Banda told Africa's Mail & Guardian. 

What is encouraging is that funding is being provided to help scientists in their groundbreaking work.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi Barre-Sinoussi, president-elect of the International AIDS Society and a Nobel Prize-winner who helped first identify the virus 30 years ago, said that science finally is showing that a cure "could be a realistic possibility."

Timothy Brown, known as the "Berlin Patient," in 2007 became the first person in history to be "cured" of HIV after receiving a blood stem cell transplant from a person resistant to the virus. Experts are exploring whether umbilical cord blood transplants could provide a similar solution to cure the virus in others.

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