The University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine announced Tuesday the launch of “Hawaii 2 Zero,” an initiative to transform Hawaii into the first HIV-free state in the United States.
Approximately 2,900 people are living with the virus here in Hawaii. Experts say many are likely unaware they are even infected.
The initiative is spearheaded by The Hawaii Center for AIDS, an academic program focused on HIV education, research and service. Dec. 1 is also World AIDS Day.
The center’s director, Dr. Cecilia Shikuma, says several factors make Hawaii a likely place to become HIV-free.
At 2,900, Hawaii has a modest infection count. The state is also relatively isolated.
“Third, and really important to us, is that our HIV research community has a very strong track record of really working together well,” Dr. Shikuma said. “We are linked up very closely with our state health department, our community physicians who take care of HIV, and actually our HIV-infected community, who’s really been supportive for over 20 years of our initiatives. We also have a laboratory that is really into some very exciting cure work.”
So far, the only person in the world to be cured of HIV is Timothy Ray Brown.
Brown was diagnosed with HIV as well as leukemia, which made him eligible for stem cell transplants. Those procedures helped to eliminate HIV from his body, though he suffered several complications in the process.
“What I went through was hell and I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy,” Brown said.
Researchers say Brown’s case was highly unique and has yet to be replicated, despite many attempts.
“People have tried to replicate this, because it’s really been a success story in the procedure, but one of the problems is, you have to have someone with cancer as well. So this obviously doesn’t apply to the general HIV-infected population,” said Dr. Lishomwa Ndhlovu, principal investigator, Laboratory of Molecular Immunology and Infectious Diseases.
“This really has been proof of principle that an integrated virus that actually hides in the cell can actually be removed by this procedure. What it has done is sparked this unbelievable interest and research to try and find out other ways we can actually do this,” he added.
Approximately 33.2 million people are living with HIV worldwide. Daily medications suppress the virus, but being HIV-infected still increases risk of heart attacks, dementia, liver problems, and other complications of aging.
“Unfortunately, I’m the only one. I do not want to be the last one. I want there to be many others cured,” Brown said.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, experts in HIV research and community leaders will gather for the Hawaii 2 Zero launch conference.
It will be held from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. in Kakaako. Brown will be one of the guest speakers.