US health officials raise alarm over 'new and untreatable' strain of HIV

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The Independent Online

A virulent strain of HIV which health experts fear could be impossible to treat has been discovered in the United States.

A virulent strain of HIV which health experts fear could be impossible to treat has been discovered in the United States.

The case was diagnosed last week in a New Yorker who regularly used drugs. Health experts were alarmed to find he very rapidly became ill with Aids, and then found that their drugs were failing to combat the disease.

New York health officials are urgently trying to trace other men who may also be infected with the unique strain, and have alerted hospitals and doctors to test every new case of HIV.

The man's illness did not respond to three of the four commonest anti-Aids drugs. Doctors are now trying to halt the progression of the disease with the final group of drugs they have available.

The man, who lives in New York, is in his mid-40s and has had a history of unprotected sex, often using the sexual stimulant drug crystal methamphetamine. Until last year, he had escaped HIV infection but he became ill with Aids in December.

Doctors believe his illness developed from HIV to full-blown Aids within two to three months, or 20 months at most, after he was first infected. This rate is far quicker than normal. It can often take up to 10 years from HIV infection to develop Aids.

The alarm was raised by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday. Dr Ron Valdiserri, the deputy director for HIV, said: "We are not aware of another case like this in the US or elsewhere."

New York's Health Commissioner, Dr Thomas Frieden, said the strain was "difficult or impossible to treat". He added: "We consider this a major potential problem."

Dr Valdiserri said drug resistance was becoming increasingly common among HIV-positive people, including some not previously treated. However, none had had such a fast progression to Aids. He said that this "double whammy" of resistance and rapid progression made the case particularly alarming. "To folks in the public health community, that is a particularly dangerous combination."

Used as a sexual drug in some gay circles, crystal methamphetamine is regarded as risky because it greatly reduces inhibitions in the men who use it while behaving as a powerful stimulant.

The CDC has told other US health departments about the new case, but some Aids experts are treating the new case with caution, and suspect this isolated case may be related to the man's immune system.

Dr Robert C Gallo, a co-discoverer of the Aids virus, said he was sceptical about the warnings. "My guess is that this is much ado about nothing," he said. "Though it's prudent to follow it, I don't think it's necessary to issue a warning or alert the press."