The statistics relating to AIDS are bleak. The United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has described it for years as a veritable ‘epidemic.’ An estimated 37.9 million people around the world are currently living with the condition. And an average of 1.7 million are infected annually. Shockingly, around 40% of people with AIDS are unaware of their plight and lack access to quality testing services.
The number of people dying from the condition has decreased markedly in the last decade. Better knowledge and improved medical care have doubtless helped.
In 2004, 1.7 million died from AIDS. By 2018, this figure had more than halved to 770,000.
However, the current number is still extremely high. As a result, researchers continue the quest to find a ‘cure’ for AIDS. Other experts seek a means of reducing the condition’s devastating impact.
While weed is usually associated with getting high, thousands of studies show the herb’s potential medicinal qualities. Typically, medical marijuana is used as a means of easing symptoms of conditions. However, we must stop short of suggesting that cannabis can ‘cure’ anything. Nonetheless, patients with AIDS will happily take anything that eases their suffering. Can MMJ help them in this regard? Read on to find out.
What Is HIV/AIDS?
It is important to remember that AIDS is a ‘phase’ of HIV. Therefore, if you contract the latter, you won’t necessarily end up with the former. As the name suggests, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. Most pertinently, it affects the body’s T-cells or CD-4 cells. Your T-cells are crucial because they help the body fight disease. When you have HIV, you are more likely to become seriously ill as your body is no longer able to fight back.
Also, it’s essential to understand that AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency virus) is the most severe phase of infection. When you reach this stage, your immune system is so severely damaged that serious illnesses, also known as opportunistic infections, are virtually inevitable. If you don’t get treatment for HIV, it will go through the following three stages:
- Acute HIV infection
- Clinical latency
Acute HIV Infection
Somewhere between two and four weeks after infection, most sufferers will have flu-like symptoms. They include swollen glands, sore throat, headaches, and muscle pain. This is your body’s natural response to the infection and is sometimes called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS). Studies show that if you receive treatment during this time frame, you have a significantly reduced likelihood of developing full-blown AIDS.
However, at this point, your body is already producing large amounts of virus. It is using T-cells to replicate the virus while destroying healthy cells in the process. By now, your body ‘recovers’ to a phase known as ‘viral set point,’ and your T-cell count may increase slightly.
At this stage, you must begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) to stand a chance of keeping the virus in check. It is a particularly dangerous period for other people as well. This is because you are at severe risk of transmitting the virus via body fluids. This means people who you have sex with, or share a needle with, are highly likely to become HIV positive.
Latency refers to a period where the virus is developing without producing symptoms. If you are already on ART, it is possible to keep the virus in the latency stage and prevent it from developing into AIDS. If you are not on ART, however, the latency phase lasts an average of a decade. However, this is potentially much shorter depending on the individual. Ultimately, your T-cell count falls again as the viral load increases.
This is the final stage, where you become increasingly vulnerable to life-ending illnesses. A person with a healthy immune system has a CD4 count between 500 and 1,600 cells per mm3. An individual is deemed to have AIDS when it falls below 200 cells. If you don’t receive treatment once you have AIDS, the average life expectancy is approximately three years. If you develop an opportunistic illness, however, you probably have 12 months to live if you don’t get treatment.
Is There a Cure & What Are the Traditional Treatment Options?
At the time of writing, there is no effective cure for the condition. You can only hope to keep it under control with ART. Antiretrovirals (ARV) are administered to patients with HIV. They have helped significantly reduce the number of deaths associated with the disease in the last 20 years. It will keep you healthy for several years, as it reduces the viral load on your body fluids and blood. This process helps you steer clear of full-blown AIDS.
You must begin ART as soon as possible after diagnosis. A delay in treatment ensures the virus continues to wreak havoc on your immune system. Unfortunately, ART can cause an array of side effects. At least, advances in medicine mean such adverse reactions are less frequent and less severe than in the past. Common side effects include:
- Chronic pain
- Dry mouth
- Nausea & vomiting
Apart from the side effects, you also have the twin issues of drug resistance and cost. In some cases, when the virus multiplies in the body, it mutates and produces variations of itself. As a result, your body could produce drug-resistant HIV strains, which means ART can fail. In this instance, you need to undergo resistance testing to determine which ARV drugs won’t work against your specific HIV strain.
The Cost of Prolonging Life
The other critical issue is the extremely high cost of ART. A typical example is Intelence, which is a drug designed to help keep HIV in check. 60 x 200mg capsules (which is a month’s supply), can cost upwards of $1,400, and there is no generic equivalent.
In September 2015, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, caused outrage. He announced that the cost of Daraprim would increase from $13.50 a pill to $750. Daraprim treats toxoplasmosis, which is a parasitic infection capable of causing severe symptoms in individuals infected with HIV.
The lack of price control on pharmaceutical drugs means that Big Pharma can pretty much charge what they like for specific products. According to the CDC, the average lifetime HIV treatment cost is around $380,000 – a financially crippling sum of money. It’s small wonder then that HIV patients are desperately seeking an alternative. The solution is potentially something that grows naturally.
Can Marijuana Help HIV Patients?
A study by Woolridge et al. published in April 2005, for instance, looked at the efficacy of weed in treating pain and other symptoms of HIV. Of the 143 patients with HIV who used marijuana:
- 97% reported improved appetite
- 94% said their muscle pain had eased
- 93% said their nausea was reduced
- 93% said their anxiety levels had dwindled
- 90% reported a reduction in nerve pain
- 86% reported an improvement in depression symptoms
Indeed, there is almost a tacit admission that weed can help. After all, Marinol, a synthetic version of THC, is prescribed for people with HIV before marijuana. However, patients are adamant that “real weed” is vastly superior to Marinol.
They have reported a myriad of side effects. For example, some patients reported feeling ‘incapacitated’ for hours after consuming just one Marinol pill. In contrast, all it takes is a few puffs from a joint for a person’s appetite to potentially return, with fewer harmful side effects.
What Does More Recent Research Say?
There is further evidence that weed could act as an ART. A 2014 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health looked at the prospect. When someone has HIV, the virus attacks the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) during the early stages of infection.
A large portion of the immune system is located in this region. This means the T-cells are severely impacted from the very start of the virus. Researchers now believe that this GALT damage plays a huge role in the speedy progression of the illness.
The 2014 study involved rhesus monkeys that were infected with SIV, the simian (primate) version of the virus. The study took place over 17 months, and during that time, the monkeys received regular doses of THC.
Overall, the research team found that the active cannabinoid caused a generalized viral load decrease. The monkeys also benefited from reduced tissue inflammation. Interestingly, the THC also seemed to cause an increase in the production of CD4 and CD8 central memory cells in GALT.
A study by Badowski and Perez, published in HIV AIDS Auckland in February 2016, looked at Marinol for treating weight loss in HIV and AIDS patients. The researchers found that Marinol stimulated appetite and stabilized weight in patients with advanced HIV wasting. Indeed, users averaged a gain of 1% in lean muscle mass.
What Is the Science Behind Suppressing HIV?
There was a significant announcement in the field of HIV/AIDS research made in October 2017. Robert Cook stated that he would lead a 400-person study to look at the impact of cannabis on patients living with HIV. The well-known researcher works out of the University of Florida as a professor of epidemiology. He received $3.2 million in funding for what will ultimately be a 5-year study, the biggest of its kind.
He hopes to analyze the impact of weed on the brains of HIV patients. Cook also plans to find out if marijuana is capable of suppressing the virus. He will check the specific amount of weed consumed by participants in the study. This includes the level of cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) in each dose. He spoke with VICE in great detail about what he hopes to achieve in his study. Cook also offered some fascinating insights into why marijuana could help keep HIV in check.
According to Cook, he has read data that outlined how much of the virus was in a person’s blood before they were treated with ARV. It showed that individuals who consumed cannabis have less of the virus in their blood as compared to non-users.
He continued by pointing out that THC acts almost exclusively on our CB1 receptors. These are cannabinoid receptors found in all areas of the body. These receptors exist in large numbers in our immune cells. Of the 110+ cannabinoids identified in weed, the ones that target the CB1 receptors could successfully suppress inflammation.
Further Research into Cannabis & HIV
A study by Costantino et al., published in PLoS One in 2012, revealed a fascinating finding. It showed that stimulation of the CB2 receptors with cannabinoid receptor agonists could block the signaling process between HIV and CXCR4. This is one of the principal receptor types that enable HIV to enter and infect a cell.
As the disease progresses, the virus uses CXCR4 to speed up the infection process. The team stimulated the activation of CB2 receptors with cannabinoid receptor agonists. This process hindered the ability of HIV to infect cells that typically use CXCR4. The result was a reduction of up to 60% in infected cell frequency.
A study by Rizzo et al., published in the AIDS journal in February 2018, found something fascinating. It discovered that THC could potentially slow the process of mental decline in up to 50% of HIV patients. Experts believe that chronic inflammation in the brain possibly results in cognitive function decreases in many HIV patients.
During the study, the researchers took blood samples from 40 HIV patients who reported whether they used cannabis or not. They isolated the white blood cells from each volunteer and studied the inflammatory cell levels. The team also looked at the effect cannabis had on these cells. Patients who used marijuana had levels closer to non-HIV infected people.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana and HIV/AIDS
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no evidence that marijuana can out-and-out cure either HIV or AIDS. However, research is increasingly showing that weed can act as a valid form of ART. It is capable of significantly slowing down the progression of the virus. Perhaps the 5-year Cook study will shed further light on the subject.
One likely benefit of cannabis is that it doesn’t cause nearly the same level of severe side effects associated with traditional HIV medications.
Also, it is available for a fraction of the cost. Ultimately, if weed is the answer, we must make it legal across the United States. Otherwise, greedy individuals will continue to profit from human misery.