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HIV ‘cure’ based on one patient? Here’s what you need to know

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

“Cure” is one of the seven words we think you should avoid in health care journalism.

Stories from The Guardian and other news outlets demonstrate why this term shouldn’t be thrown around carelessly.

Their blaring headlines today raise hope that a cancer drug could “cure” HIV infection — a global scourge affecting millions.

But this potential cure is based on results from just a single man whose reservoir of dormant HIV-infected cells went down after treatment with the cancer drug nivolumab.

Further down in the story we learn that this man has only been followed for about four months, and there’s no telling if his reservoir of infected cells might increase again.

We also learn that a second man with HIV saw no benefit from the drug.

Then the only quoted source who’s not affiliated with the study says that “talks of cure are premature.”

One thing we don’t learn from The Guardian story is this: three out of the seven study authors have received payments from Bristol Myers Squibb, which makes nivolumab.

Today is World AIDS Day, a day when the global community is urged to show support for people living with HIV.

Hyped headlines touting a possible cure based on one patient aren’t supportive of patients at all. They tease false hope that ultimately can hurt the people who are suffering.

Let’s be clear: this was an intriguing and possibly important observation about one man’s lab test results — the headlines should have stuck to that.

There will be plenty of time to praise a “cure” — if that’s what it turns out to be — once the evidence is in.

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