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By John DiLodovico
Today it is estimated that more than 1 million people are living with HIV in the United States, and one in five is unaware of their infection. Those numbers are way too high and it’s important we remain steadfast in our commitment to educating people about the high-risk behaviors that lead to transmission of HIV/AIDS and continuing our research efforts in hopes it leads to a cure.
We’ve come a long way since those alarming death tolls in the early years of the epidemic. Fortunately, with changes in medications and treatments, people with HIV are living longer and with a better quality of life. When I began working in an HIV clinic in 2001, only a restricted number of drugs were available for the treatment of HIV/AIDS and most drugs had to be taken multiple times every day. The toxicity of these medications ranged from moderate to severe and could be unbearable for some, at best decreasing quality of life, at worst leading to life threatening complications. Moreover, the antiviral effect of these medications did not last very long. One wondered if the pain was not worth the gain, and many stopped therapy or opted out altogether. I can vividly recall meeting my friend’s gay cousin from California in 1993 who was dying of AIDS. He was in his 40s, with bright inquisitive blue eyes and blond hair. But he looked much older than his age, and was emaciated, gaunt, frail and had a frightening cough.
In 2013, the number of pills patients are taking on a daily basis is much more tolerable and manageable.
We know that HIV attacks and destroys the infection-fighting CD4 cells of the body’s immune system. Losing these cells makes it hard for the body to fight infection and to prevent some cancers. The antiretroviral medicines prevent HIV from multiplying. This allows the immune system a chance to recover and generate new CD4 cells that survive and function to fight infection and prevent some cancers.
While there are many different medications and treatment regimens, research has shown that a person’s first regimen offers the best chance for long-term success. These medications are safe, tolerable and robust. That said it is vitally important that patients adhere to their treatment plan. Because of side effects, such as nausea or diarrhea, or difficulty swallowing pills, adhering to the treatment regimen can be tough and demanding. Skipping medications can lead to drug resistance, thus limiting options for successful treatment. Adhering to your physician’s prescribed medications is so important to the success of your treatment and your health.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Between The Lines, we can be proud of the tremendous strides made in the treatment of HIV since the first cases of AIDS were reported in 1981. No longer is HIV a death sentence, and patients are living longer and healthier lives. It gives us hope for what lies ahead.