Could AIDS be treated by putting the person in a “bubble” to prevent infection?

Dear Cecil:

I can't understand why this wouldn't be a cure for someone infected with HIV, the AIDS virus: put them in one of those plastic bubbles like they use for people with genetic immunological deficiences. No germs, no opportunistic infections, no AIDS, right?

Cecil replies:

If only it were that simple. There are a couple problems with your idea: first, AIDS is quite capable of killing you all by itself, without any help from opportunistic infections. It can directly infect the brain and the gut, producing such syndromes as HIV encephalopathy, also knowns as AIDS dementia (symptoms: loss of memory, alertness, balance, and vision; weakness) and HIV wasting syndrome, where you simply waste away. (Opportunistic infections may also contribute to this.)

The other problem is that AIDS makes you vulnerable to germs that are already in your body. For example, there’s toxoplasmosis, which people sometimes get when they eat undercooked meat or come in contact with cat feces. In normal adults toxo produces mild symptoms (swollen lymph nodes, fatigue). But it remains in the brain and muscles, and if you subsequently get AIDS it can lead to encephalitis and eventually abscesses in the brain, causing headaches, seizures, and convulsions.

Then there’s cytomegalovirus. Kids and mothers of small children often get it, since it’s passed in the urine. In normal adults it produces mono-like symptoms (fever, sore throat). But it too remains in the body and in an AIDS patient can infect the retina, causing blindness.

I could go on, but it’s too depressing. If you get HIV doctors will try to determine what infections you already have and do what they can to prevent you from getting anything else. (If you don’t already have toxo they’ll tell you not to change any kitter litter boxes, for example.) But this merely prolongs the inevitable. So far as is now known, AIDS will kill everyone who contracts it.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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