The study of American experts

The community of Vietnamese health experts has been stirred up by the recently-released study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (USA).

The study, released in the New England Journal of Medicine last Thursday, found patients with the disease were making antibodies that attacked their immune systems in Southeast Asia.

"We all make molecules and proteins in the body that tell our immune system how to function properly," said Dr. Sarah Browne, a clinical investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH and the lead author on the study.

"They tell different immune cells when to turn on and when to start fighting infection," she said. "We found a large number of the patients that we studied with serious opportunistic infections make an antibody that blocks the function of one of these molecules, which is interferon-gamma."

Without functioning interferon-gamma, people become more susceptible to certain types of infections -- infections people with working immune systems normally don't get, she said.

The disease is being called an adult-onset immunodeficiency syndrome because it strikes adults. Cases date back to 2004, with most of them occurring in Thailand and Taiwan. The NIH has been studying the disease since 2005.

"It's rare -- more prevalent over in Southeast Asia," Browne told CNN. "But we have been diagnosing it here in the U.S. in individuals of Asian descent."

So far NIH has seen about 12 cases, all of them in people of Asian descent. According to Browne, most patients survive. There have been deaths in other countries, she said, but did not know how many. No one has died in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, says it's important to note the disease is not contagious.

"It is not a virus, that's the first thing. It's not a new AIDS-like virus," Fauci said. "It's a syndrome that was noticed and discovered in Asia where people get opportunistic infections similar to HIV/AIDS, but the cause of the syndrome is not an infection like HIV."

Fauci said researchers "found that people have an autoimmunity, where their bodies are making antibodies against a protein that's important in fighting infection.

"The reason the body is making that antibody is unclear but it isn't a virus like HIV that's causing it," he said. "It's autoimmune disease, and people get secondary infections similar to AIDS."

The study was already in the early stages in 2009, when Kim Nguyen, a 62-year-old Vietnamese woman from Tennessee, came to NIH suffering from symptoms that would be linked to the mystery disease.

A little more than 200 people - almost exclusively from Thailand and Taiwan between the ages of 18 and 78 -- were studied. All were HIV-negative.

"We want to understand what triggers people to make these antibodies in the first place," Browne said. "And we want to use that information to guide treatment -- because really, when you treat the infection you're treating the symptom. You're not treating the underlying cause."

Right now, doctors are simply treating the infections. For many of the patients, that's sufficient, Browne said, but for those cases where it's not, they are trying to find ways to target the antibodies themselves by lowering the antibody levels and trying to reverse the immunodeficiency.

Both Fauci and Browne believe a combination of both genetic and environmental factors are most likely at play, but don't yet know what those factors are.

"Overall it appears to be a chronic disease, but we have not yet studied it for a long enough period of time to know the long-term prognosis," Browne said. "We don't yet know what factors may distinguish those with mild versus those with severe disease."

Vietnam has many patients ?

A local news website recently published a long story about the new disease. According to the article, after the study was made public, many patients who caught the disease went to big hospitals in HCM City to seek treatment.

It quoted health expert Pham Thanh from the HCM City Department of Health as saying that he was very interested in the study because of its influence on the people and the society.

The article also cited Dr. Ho Quang Hau, from the HCM City Healthcare Development Program, as saying that he had just received the NIH’s study.

The article also mentioned a patient named Le Ngoc Ha, 42, from Thu Duc district, who has been living with this disease for nearly four years.

“Previously I used drugs but I gave it up. After successful detoxification, I was infected with an unknown disease. Doctors said I suffered from immune deficiency syndrome. This disease is difficult for curing. I’m very happy to know about Dr. Sarah Browne’s study because the cure for this disease has been found,” Ha said in the article.

The article also mentioned doctor Le Thi Thu Huong, from the HCM City Health Research Center, who said that Vietnamese scientists are working on this disease.

“I’ve met with many patients who have similar symptoms of AIDS but tests showed that they were not infected with HIV virus. I and many colleagues have been seeking effective measures to treat this disease. If the disease is not treated, patients will lose all antibodies and their bodies will gradually die like HIV/AIDS carriers,” Huong said.

According to the article, Mr. Tran Pham Hung, deputy director of a HCM City-based hospital, said that his hospital has detected many patients who have similar symptoms like NIH’s study. However, doctors have not had effective methods to treat the disease.

Hung said the NIH’s study is extremely accurate to say that this disease only appears in Asian, particularly Southeast Asian countries. Many patients have been found in Vietnam.

Hung added that the study will help patients to seek survival. It’s time for Vietnamese agencies to apply NIH’s study to seek treatment methods.

In recent days, many patients have gone to big hospitals in HCM City like Cho Ray, Gia Dinh, Binh Dan and Thu Duc for examinations, the article wrote.

This article has been published by many other websites, raising worry among people.

However, Lao Dong Newspaper has checked the accuracy of the above article and confirmed that the information about the strange disease in Vietnam is completely false.

“At this moment, there is no report from any hospital mentioning the appearance of this disease in Vietnam. I’ve directly called the hospitals which were named in the article and doctors confirmed that they had not received any patient who suffer from this strange disease,” Nguyen Hoai Nam, an official from the HCM City Department of Health told Lao Dong.

Nam also said that there is no “health expert Pham Thanh from the HCM City Department of Health” as being cited in the article.

HCM City does not have any center named “HCM City Healthcare Research Center and the HCM City Health Development Program,” Nam added.

“Even the HCM City Tropical Hospital where is specialized in HIV/AIDS has not received any patient of this kind,” said doctor Vo Minh Quang, vice chief of the hospital’s General Planning Department.

By Le Ha - VietNamNet Bridge - August 28, 2012