Reports of a New Deadly HIV Strain in the Philippines Are Inaccurate

There have been a number of media reports on a looming HIV crisis due to a new, drug resistant strain of HIV detected in the Philippines. However, experts have said that this is not accurate.

These reports include headlines in reputable papers like the Independent, but all appear to quote a website called Deutsche Welle, a German current affairs site. Deutsche Welle recently ran the following headline and lede:

New virus strain behind HIV explosion in the Philippines

A more aggressive and drug-resistant HIV subtype is behind skyrocketing HIV infection rates in the Philippines. Epidemiologist Edsel Salvana tells DW that the strain is threatening to spark a new epidemic.

In their interview, Salvana talks about the HIV subtype common to the Philippines and much of Asia, as well as what he would do about the Philippines’ HIV-testing and prevention problems. 

At this point, it’s important to step back a moment to give some context.

HIV in the Philippines

There has been a massive surge in HIV cases in the Philippines over the past 10 years. To give you some idea of the rising problem, figures from 2011 to 2016 showed a significant 32,099 infections, with that figure surpassing  the 50,000 mark by the close of 2017.

That’s a massive surge in HIV cases and means the Philippines has the most rapid and alarming growth of HIV cases across Asia-Pacific region.

What is behind this rise in cases is a key question, but the media’s apparent characterization of this being down to a new “aggressive and drug-resistant HIV sub-type” appears to be a misunderstanding.

The Philippines branch of the UNAIDS group has released a statement specifically denying these reports. It reads in part:

“There is no new strain of HIV which has been found in the Philippines. The variants of the virus found in the Philippines have not changed and are similar to the strains of the virus found in many parts of Asia and in other parts of the world.

In addition, there is no conclusive evidence that the strains of the virus found in the country are more infectious than other virus variants, nor is there evidence that they are resistant to the current treatment regimens available.”

The HIV-1 A/E subtype (CRF01 AE) is actually well known to scientists and is often called the “Thai strain“ which was actually first reported in Cuba but, over the years, has become the predominant strain in Thailand and the rest of the Pacific-Asia region.

It is true to say that it has some differences from other strains. When it was first discovered, it appeared to favor heterosexual transmission, but at the time of writing there is no evidence that it is resistant to anti-retrovirals.

So from where does this misunderstanding originate?

Inaccurate Reporting on HIV in the Philippines

Dr. Salvana, who is quoted in the DW article, is a known expert in this field and has been discussing the so-called AE sub-type of HIV for a number of years now as he seeks to raise its profile and get funding for further research.

He gave a TED talk on the subject which came out in January of this year. He appears to be on a media tour in order to raise the profile of this subtype and to stress to the general public that the global threat of HIV has not gone away but has, and is, changing.

His statements to Deutsche Welle on the subtype are actually quite specific. “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 explained, “Those infected by the HIV subtype AE are younger, sicker patients who are more resistant to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. We are also seeing a faster progression to AIDS under subtype AE.” 

Without proper context, though, it is easy to see why these statements could cause alarm, but again as UNAIDS reinforces, we are talking about a known sub-type that, despite presenting certain challenges – as all HIV strains do – is treatable.

With that important correction to media reports in mind, Salvana’s overarching point remains a good one: HIV strains can and do change.

Urgent action is needed from the Philippines to cut transmission risk among vulnerable communities. If they don’t work to stay ahead of new subtypes, there will be serious health implications not just for the country itself, but worldwide.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

25 comments

Marie W
Marie W9 months ago

thanks for sharing

SEND
John B
John Babout a year ago

Thanks Steve for sharing the facts.

SEND
Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a year ago

Thanks

SEND
Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a year ago

Noted

SEND
Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

Best we educate western men to not take advantage of poor women. With no regard for anyone but themselves, Thai girls have contracted that awful disease from such selfish men. Men who think it’s ok to pay unbelievably cheap prices for women. Such men sicken me.

SEND
Muff-Anne York-Haley
Muff-Anne York-Haleyabout a year ago

No comment.

SEND
Mark Turner
Mark Tabout a year ago

Ty.

SEND
Anne Moran
Anne Mabout a year ago

Have to get your facts straight before you put em’ out there...

SEND
Jetana A
Jetana Aabout a year ago

Thanks for a carefully researched article.

SEND
HEIKKI R
HEIKKI Rabout a year ago

thank you

SEND