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New Highly Resistant Strain of HIV Diagnosed in NYC

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Late last week, the New York City Health Department reported that a highly resistant strain of HIV was diagnosed for the first time in a New York City resident. [includes rush transcript]

The resident is a male in his 40’s who engaged in unprotected sex with multiple male partners in the fall of 2004. The department reported that this particular strain appeared to be more aggressive than other forms of the virus given that the patient was diagnosed with HIV in December of 2004 and by January, it had progressed to full-blown AIDS.

It is the combination of the strain’s resistance and the rapid onset from infection to AIDS seen in the patient that has alarmed members of the health community and AIDS activists.

But it is unknown whether this is some new virulent strain of HIV or if it is confined to this particular patient. Doctors studying the case say that the man may have genetic factors that caused the rapid progression to AIDS. The man was also a user of the drug crystal meth which could have been a factor in the rapid onset of disease.

  • Dr. Gal Mayer, Associate Medical Director of Callen Lorde Community Center focused on health care needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and people living with HIV/AIDS.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Dr. Gal Mayer, he is the Associate Director, Medical Director of the Callen Lorde Community Center focused on health care needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What you can tell us in terms of what you have learned about this new strain, to what degree — first of all, what do you know about its characteristics, and to what degree it could potentially be a much bigger threat?

DR. GAL MAYER: Well, I should start by saying — that very little is known about this case. There is — I know that people are — at the Research Center at the Department of Health are working overtime to really try and to crystallize the important parts of this case. What we know now is that the gentleman had a virus transmitted to him that is resistant — appears to be resistant to all but one of the available treatments for HIV. This is not new. This has happened before. And we have been talking about this for a long time, as a result of using medications, there will be resistance, and if people don’t protect themselves, there will be transmission of resistance. This gentleman, as you pointed out, also has rapid progression, and that may be due to viral properties. That might be the virus; it might be the person; it might be the person’s crystal meth use.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would crystal meth use do this?

DR. GAL MAYER: There’s some drugs, cocaine, for example, which are known to affect the immune system directly, decrease t-cells, increase viral loads, things like that. Crystal meth has also been studied to a lesser degree, and some experts believe that it, too, can do that. Certainly, I can tell you from my experience in treating people who have HIV and use crystal meth, that just disrupting the sleep cycle and the way that avid crystal meth use does is, can be very harmful to the immune system. So, it’s not clear, you know, why this gentleman progressed so quickly. And I did go to a presentation a couple of nights ago where it was illustrated that they — the people at the Aaron Diamond Research Center looked into — has been looking into this, and it’s looking more and more like there might be something about the virus that makes this rapidly progressive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the — the Times report said that this is a rare strain. I mean, how rare is it? Has a similar strain been identified anywhere else in the world, or is this sort of a unique situation so far?

DR. GAL MAYER: I think both, actually. It’s a unique situation in that this very resistant strain has also occurred in a person in whom the disease has been very rapidly progressive. But multi-drug resistant strain is not a new thing. And this type of resistance to many, many different medications has been seen before. So, it’s very confusing case, because they’re calling it a strain, but it’s not clear that the rapidly progressive part of this case is due to the strain of the virus. So, I think that’s where a lot of the confusion has set in.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done right now?

DR. GAL MAYER: Well, I think that HIV remains a very serious disease. It always has been, and it is today. And I think that while they’re sorting out the facts and figuring out whether we’re sitting on the tip of an iceberg of a new outbreak or whether this is just an isolated case or something in between, it’s really a reminder that people need to protect themselves. I think it’s important for your viewers and everyone to know that people who are — who have been using clean needles, who have been using condoms for sex, who have been doing all of the right things to protect themselves remain safe. And the people who haven’t been doing that might really want to reconsider their choices in light of this information. We don’t know what it is yet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And is it your sense that there has been a lowering of the guard in the general population in recent years around the — around the possibility of being exposed to HIV and that people are now becoming more reckless in their habits?

DR. GAL MAYER: There actually has been, a lowering of the guard. I think that’s due to many different things — one is AIDS has dropped off the headlines of the media. It doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. If you look in at least in our population, which is mostly gay men, when we talk about HIV, if you look in the magazines and the media that we read, it’s filled with advertisements for HIV medications, which for a purpose make — make it seem like it would be it’s easy to have HIV. If you take these medications, and the truth is, it’s not easy at all, but that notion isn’t getting reinforced anywhere in the media or in our community. And there’s just human nature of fatigue. It’s really hard to fight something for decades. So all of that together has led to a dropping of the guard, and maybe stories like this will help people — remind people that they really do need to protect themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that the population that is being hit the most, the rate of increase, AIDS is hitting populations, is black women?

DR. GAL MAYER: I think that various statistics, it depends how you break down populations. It’s true that black women are a very devastated population by this — by this virus and this infection. In our health care center, it’s not the population we see. So, it’s — it’s a very true — in fact, you know, the media attention on this incident as something that happened to a gay man, and they have sort of focused on that, and it’s hard not to because there are all of these enticing stories about the drug use and sex and that’s — that — you know, health headlines, but the truth is if this virus is out there, it’s out there, and anyone at risk for HIV, teen-agers, black women, anyone — is at risk for catching this strain of the virus. It’s not going to be just a gay thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Gal Mayer, thank you for being with us.

DR. GAL MAYER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Associate Medical Director at Callen Lorde Community Center here in New York City. Thanks.

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