The Long Road to an HIV Vaccine

Viruses cannot be treated in the same way as bacterial infections – which makes prevention the most effective method for handling viral diseases like HIV. Many viruses have been controlled through the invention of vaccines, with diseases like smallpox and polio effectively being wiped out.

However, while scientists are working to develop an HIV vaccine, it has not been an easy task, and we may still be a long way from creating an effective vaccine.

How Vaccines Work

A vaccine works by increasing your body’s natural immunity to a virus. Once your body has been infected with a virus, it will produce antibodies that will defend against it – this is, for example, why children will only get chickenpox once.

A vaccine takes advantage of this fact to produce antibodies against a pathogen without requiring an active infection. It does this by isolating weakened or dead viruses and injecting these into the body; this raises a person’s immunity against a virus without their having an active infection first.

Why Don’t We Have an HIV Vaccine Yet?

Scientists have been working to create an HIV vaccine since the 1980s, but progress has been slow. There are several reasons for this:

  • Some people will present natural immunity to a virus, as discovered after an outbreak. Vaccines are most often created from antibodies produced by these individuals as their antibodies are strongest. So far, there have been no clear cases of natural immunity to HIV.
  • The HIV virus has multiple mutations and mutates quickly; this is why risk of co-infection of multiple strains of HIV is possible, and makes developing a vaccine that’s effective against all strains particularly challenging.
  • The HIV virus is either absent in other animal species or affects them very differently, making animal testing and models ineffective.

Fortunately, science is progressing in leaps and bounds, and many other treatments for HIV have been discovered – including treatments for blocking transmission of HIV from a mother to her infant, and medications that reduce the viral load of an HIV+ person to undetectable status. These have already made a tremendous difference in the quality of life for HIV+ people, and further innovations and research will lead to greater improvements in time – including, perhaps, that elusive HIV vaccine!