A Filipino woman holds on to an informational book on HIV/AIDS during a candle lighting event on World AIDS Day.
A Filipino woman holds on to an informational book on HIV/AIDS during a candle lighting event on World AIDS Day. MARK R. CRISTINO

Drug-resistant strain of HIV found in Philippines

A DRUG-resistant strain of the HIV virus discovered in the Philippines has the potential to spark a new epidemic, scientists have warned.

HIV prevalence among Filipinos has risen sharply in the past decade, at a time when infection rates across the world are beginning to decline.

The UN estimates the number of new cases identified in the Philippines each year has risen by 140 per cent since 2010.

Researchers are concerned a new drug-resistant version of the virus, HIV subtype AE, could be fuelling the epidemic.

The strain is more aggressive, more resistant to drugs and progresses to AIDs fasterthan the HIV generally found in Western countries.

"The HIV virus has the potential to transform itself into a new and different virus each time it affects a cell,” Dr Edsel Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines told DW.

"There are nearly 100 different subtypes of HIV, with new subtypes being discovered every day.

"Most HIV infections in the Western world are of subtype B. Most of the research that we have on HIV is also on subtype B, though it accounts for only about 12 per cent of all global HIV infections.

"We have discovered that the explosion of HIV in the Philippines is due to a shift from the Western subtype B to a more aggressive HIV subtype AE.”

Dr Salvana added: "Those infected by the HIV subtype AE are younger, sicker patients who are more resistant to antiretroviral drugs. We are also seeing a faster progression to AIDS under subtype AE.”

Around 5,000 people in the Philippines were living with HIV in 2006, compared to around 56,000 in 2016, according to UN figures.

The number of new cases being diagnosed has also spiked in recent years, with some 10,000 new cases identified in 2016 alone, giving the country the fastest-growing HIV rate in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dr Salvana warned work done in recent decades to combat the HIV virus risked being undone if research was not conducted into the new strain.

"HIV is not done yet. We cannot think of HIV as a single virus but as a collection of viruses that are evolving, with a new mutation that can possibly set off a new epidemic.

"The gains that we have made in decreasing HIV infection rates will be short-lived without research and treatment for HIV subtype AE,” he added.

"This is urgently needed. Specifically for the Philippines, we need more scientists willing to do research work on HIV.”

Tom Barnes, The Independent