FRIDAY, Feb. 11, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New York City health officials are sounding the alarm about the possible appearance of an HIV "superbug" -- a strain of the virus so powerful that it's resistant to nearly all AIDS drugs and rapidly weakens the immune system.
The unusual combination of drug resistance and quick progression to full-blown AIDS may have never been seen before, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden said Friday. "We do not know how widespread it is," he said. However, "we know that it is a wake-up call."
Officials have only found the strain in one unidentified man, a city resident in his mid-40s who used the street drug crystal methamphetamine and reported having unprotected anal sex with several men. He was diagnosed in December with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and tests suggest he was infected in October, although it could have been up to 20 months earlier.
Typically, it takes an average of about 10 years for someone to be stricken with AIDS after infection with HIV. In the New York man's case, full-blown AIDS appeared in a matter of weeks, not years. What makes the man's case even more exceptional is that he's also resistant to three of the four types of antiviral AIDS drugs that combat the disease.
"To go from infection to disease in a matter of a few months is very unusual. To do that in conjunction with such a highly resistant strain is also unusual," Frieden said. "Putting them both together is what's so unique."
Recent studies have suggested that drug resistance is a growing problem among AIDS patients, but it usually develops in people who have already been undergoing antiviral treatment. Doctors suspect the AIDS virus strengthens and mutates when patients take breaks from their drug regimens.
New York City health officials are trying to track down the man's sexual partners, but they don't yet know how far the newly discovered HIV strain may have spread, Frieden said. A health alert has been issued that calls for hospitals and doctors in the city to be on the lookout for the new strain.
Michael Allerton, HIV operations policy leader with the Kaiser Permanente health plan in Northern California, said it's possible the newly identified strain may affect people differently, and something in the man's physical makeup could have made him especially vulnerable to its effects.
"Some people with the exact same virus will progress differently, based on their own susceptibility and immune system," he said.
Even so, Allerton added, "this reemphasizes the fact that HIV is still a deadly disease. With multiple treatments, with people living longer, with highly visible people like Magic Johnson doing very well, we've seen the [gay] community believe that HIV is no longer a big deal. In reality, it's a deadly epidemic that's still changing."
The role of crystal methamphetamine in the man's infection is also unclear. Health officials have warned for years that the drug is popular in the gay community, and researchers say it can contribute to unprotected sex by lowering inhibitions.
Friday's news offers yet another reason for sexually active people to be cautious, even if they're already infected with the AIDS virus, Frieden said.
"If you're HIV-positive and you're on treatment and you're doing well, this doesn't mean that your treatment needs to change at all," he said. "It doesn't mean you need any tests to be done. You do need to protect yourself against being infected with another strain of HIV which could make you very sick even if you're doing well now."
Learn more about AIDS from the National Institutes of Health.