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No more condoms? Dangerous advice in false headline on HIV ‘cure’

“NO MORE CONDOMS! Doctors Announce HIV/AIDS Cure!!!” shouts the headline of an article preview posted on three South African Facebook pages. It adds: “2 people healed already.”

The image shows a syringe next to a vial labelled “HIV Vaccine”.

The preview has been shared more than 225,000 times across the world, according to Facebook’s fact-checking system.

Is it, as one user said, time to celebrate? Have doctors announced a cure for HIV?

No. The article preview is false.

And saying there’s “no more” need for condoms puts people at risk of disease and death.


Two patients in 10 years

The preview, when clicked, leads to an article on the Southern Daily, a known junk news site.

Here the headline is different. It says: “HIV functional cure: stem cell treatment breakthrough after Berlin & Barcelona patients cured”.

The article seems to be about a recent achievement in HIV research. The achievement was announced in the journal Nature in March 2019 under the headline: “Second patient free of HIV after stem-cell therapy.”

But the achievement isn’t a “cure” for HIV. And no doctor has said it means people can stop using condoms to protect themselves from HIV.

The 2009 Berlin patient

In 2009 it was announced that Timothy Ray Brown, an HIV-positive man with leukaemia, was given a bone marrow transplant of stem cells from a donor who was genetically resistant to HIV. Stem cells are special cells that can grow into almost any kind of tissue or organ in the human body.

After the transplant, Brown – known as the “Berlin patient” – was cured of leukaemia, a kind of cancer. And the HIV couldn’t be detected in his body.

But at the time, experts stressed that this wasn’t a “cure” for HIV.

The 2019 Barcelona patient

Ten years later, in 2019, researchers announced that another HIV-positive person, known only as the “Barcelona patient”, had also been given a transplant that cured their cancer. It also made the HIV in their body undetectable.

Again, experts warned that it wasn’t a “cure” for HIV.

“A person with HIV seems to be free of the virus after receiving a stem-cell transplant that replaced their white blood cells with HIV-resistant versions,” says the Nature report on the transplant.

“The patient is only the second person ever reported to have been cleared of the virus using this method. But researchers warn that it is too early to say that they have been cured.”

Antiretrovirals less risky than transplants

The article quotes Graham Cooke, a clinical researcher at Imperial College London, as saying that the “serious” procedure would be too risky for most people with HIV. 

Bone marrow transplants are used only for life-threatening cases. Transplants “can sometimes have fatal complications”.  

It is much safer for HIV-positive people to take antiretroviral tablets.

“If you’re well, the risk of having a bone-marrow transplant is far greater than the risk of staying on tablets every day,” the Nature article quotes Cooke as saying.

Use a condom

Two complicated and risky bone marrow transplants over 10 years do not mean that HIV has been cured.

HIV can be controlled with antiretroviral medicine, or ARVs. The medicine stops HIV-positive people from getting sick from Aids and helps them have a normal lifespan

But you should still use a condom – a male condom, or a female condom – to avoid HIV infection. – Mary Alexander


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