Recently, I was in Washington, D.C., for the 19th annual International Conference on AIDS, myself and 25,000 of my closest new friends. Leaders from the U.S. and conference organizers welcomed visitors from other countries here for the first time in 22 years. Why? Because shortly after the conference was held in San Francisco in 1990, the U.S. adopted a very controversial policy banning all known HIV-positive people from entering the country. A truly ill-conceived policy based on fear and prejudice instead of science. A policy that took the international community by surprise and resulted in a conference boycott of the U.S. for two decades. President Bush started the process of lifting that ban four years ago and President Obama finalized it last summer, making way for this momentous conference. Thank you!
What an exciting week it was hearing reports of the latest science and news about HIV. For the first time ever, scientists across the globe are saying “a cure for AIDS is possible” and hope for “an AIDS free generation” has turned into “when” instead of “if.” Two individuals have had bone marrow transplants that have resulted in no presence of HIV, one HIV free for five years. Of course, bone marrow transplants are not possible for the 34 million people living with HIV but this success absolutely opens the door for a cure. We also heard of the possibility of a significantly effective HIV vaccine in as soon as five years.
The other tag line of the conference was “treatment is prevention.” Data released at the last international conference two years ago show a definitive reduction in the sexual transmission of HIV from one person to the next when the HIV-positive person is on treatment and his/her viral load is undetectable (remember that undetectable means there is still HIV present but such a small amount that it is not measureable). In fact, there is only a 4 percent chance of being infected if the positive person’s virus is suppressed and controlled. That is progress! Here’s the kicker, only 29 percent of those individuals who are in care, here in the U.S., have undetectable viral loads. We know that if a person is in care and adherent to their HIV medication regime, the medications work. So?
The other day I was talking with a person who found several months worth of antiretroviral medications in a friend’s refrigerator. When asked, the friend said that he started feeling better and didn’t think he needed them and sometimes he just didn’t like the way the medications made him feel. Granted, HIV medications are really rough on a lot of people. There are severe side effects, usually gastrointestinal, that almost all people suffer from at least for a few weeks. But for most people those severe side effects subside. When I hear stories like this I am dumbfounded. I just want to scream, “You feel better because you are taking the medications” and “Is death better than the side effects you experience?” Because no treatment equals death. Not maybe, no treatment definitely means death.
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When I think of people all over the world who still do not have access to life saving drugs and then I hear stories, common stories, like the one above I feel very, very sad. When we live in one of the wealthiest counties in the world, where medications are available to everyone even to those who are uninsured, where the government provides medications free of charge or for co-pays that are often less than the cost of a soda and a bag of chips (even the expensive ones Magic Johnson takes) why are you throwing your life away?
Currently, 70 percent of the patients seen in Careteam’s medical office have undetectable viral loads. That is significantly better than the 29 percent nationally. Of course, we are very proud of that. Today I feel hopeful and revitalized having been at the conference. Knowing the Road to Zero is attainable is exhilarating! We can all work together to get there. Help spread the word. Help educate yourself, your friends and your family about the risk for HIV. If you don’t know your status, get tested today. Careteam provides testing free of charge. Know your status, take those medications and keep up the fight! There is finally light at the end of the tunnel … and it isn’t a train.
The writer, executive director of Careteam, lives in Myrtle Beach.