The Human Immunodeficiency Virus type 1 (HIV-1) is classified into genetic groups, subtypes and sub-subtypes which show a specific geographic distribution pattern. The HIV-1 epidemic in Italy, as in most of the Western Countries, has traditionally affected the Intra-venous drug user (IDU) and Homosexual (Homo) risk groups and has been sustained by the genetic B subtype. In the last years, however, the HIV-1 transmission rate among heterosexuals has dramatically increased, becoming the prevalent transmission route. In fact, while the traditional risk groups have high levels of knowledge and avoid high-risk practices, the heterosexuals do not sufficiently perceive the risk of HIV-1 infection. This misperception, linked to the growing number of immigrants from non-Western Countries, where non-B clades and circulating recombinant forms (CRFs) are prevalent, is progressively introducing HIV-1 variants of non-B subtype in the Italian epidemic. This is in agreement with reports from other Western European Countries. In this context, the Italian HIV-1 epidemic is still characterized by low subtype heterogeneity and represents a paradigmatic example of the European situation. The continuous molecular evolution of the B subtype HIV-1 isolates, characteristic of a long-lasting epidemic, together with the introduction of new subtypes as well as recombinant forms may have significant implications for diagnostic, treatment, and vaccine development. The study and monitoring of the genetic evolution of the HIV-1 represent, therefore, an essential strategy for controlling the local as well as global HIV-1 epidemic and for developing efficient preventive and therapeutic strategies.
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