A study has highlighted the risks facing HIV positive gay and bi men who use the drug crystal meth (also known as “tik” in South Africa).
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have found that the drug appears to allow HIV to spread faster and stay better hidden in the body of men who have sex with men (MSM), reported the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project.
While it’s been long known that crystal meth use among MSM increases the risk of infection (the drug often leads to a reduction in inhibition and an increase in risky behaviour), the study shows that other biological factors may also be at work.
The researchers found that HIV positive users of the drug had greater T-cell activation and proliferation than non-users, even though they had an undetectable viral load. They also tended to have more HIV RNA in their semen.
The scientists, however, found no similar results when it came to the use of marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and “other club drugs”.
The study of the 50 American men also produced evidence that HIV positive meth users may have a deeper HIV DNA reservoir than non-users, which means that the virus may be able to stay better hidden in their bodies.
The results appear to show that in addition to crystal meth affecting behaviour among users – that could lead to risky sex and lack of adherence to treatment – it could actually be assisting the virus in the body.
The crystal meth use could also make users more infectious than non-users – even if their viral load is undetectable.
The results of the study, said the researchers, could help explain the higher death rate among HIV-positive people who use meth.
The trend toward a deeper DNA reservoir and more HIV RNA in semen among meth users, the UCSD team suggested, could also “explain increased HIV transmission and worse HIV disease progression” in meth users.
The men in the study averaged 46 years in age and had been on antiretroviral treatment for an average of four years.