Humanity has taken huge leaps forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but the first step toward healing is always a personal one
Nearly three decades ago, the first of December was designated as “World AIDS Day” in order to raise awareness of the disease and the lives affected or taken by it. For the fourth year in a row, the theme of this commemoration has been “Getting to Zero,” with a global goal of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero deaths due to HIV. While these goals might sound lofty if not downright impossible, new insights into the disease offer new hope for those living under the specter of HIV/AIDS.
TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY
The bad news is, AIDS is still officially considered a pandemic, with around 660 thousand people living with the disease in Indonesia alone. The good news is, well, there’s a lot of good news in the fight against HIV/AIDS. For example, there are cures that are considered functional. In 2012, reports emerged about the “Mississippi baby.” Born from an HIV-positive mother, the baby showed no traces of the disease after about a month of treatment. This year, Timothy Ray Brown aka “The Berlin Patient” celebrates eighth AIDS-free year after undergoing a bone marrow transplant.
While a “real” cure for HIV/AIDS is still in the works, treatment of the disease has also seen major improvements, foremost being the prevalence of one-a-day pills. So, instead of multiple medications spread throughout the day, patients can now streamline their treatment to one single pill per day. And new drugs are released quite frequently. Today we have Atripla, Complera (sometimes sold as Eviplera), Genvoya, Stribild and Triumeq with many more still on the way or under development.
There are, reportedly, new medications designed to act at different points of the HIV virus’ lifecycle, thus potentially streamlining treatment even more.
Even more encouraging are developments in a new type of vaccine that might actually beat the virus. Today, we have a new vaccine candidate designed to combat the virus at the moment of infection, therefore allowing it to deal with many different HIV strains. After 15 years of development, the revolutionary vaccine started human trials a couple of months ago, and is expected to clear its first trial phase within a year. Of course, there will be another two testing phases before the vaccine is even considered for public release. Still, this is a huge step toward an actual solution to the HIV/AIDS problem.
Interestingly, this development came at the hands of a team lead by Dr. Robert Gallo, the man who co-discovered HIV and pioneered the test to detect the virus. Which brings us to our next, and perhaps more important, discussion.
All the cures in the world won’t make a difference if it starts too little, too late. Researchers have credited early treatment as the single most important factor in treating the aforementioned Mississippi baby, and many of today’s best medications also work best when started early on in the disease’s life cycle.
It doesn’t really help that the early symptoms of HIV infection is similar to what you’d expect from a bad flu: headaches, fever, a sore throat, joint pains, fatigue and so on. The only real way to be sure is by actually testing for HIV/AIDS. This is especially true for anybody with increased risk of infection due to unprotected sexual intercourse, having another sexually transmitted infection (STIs often create sores which can act as gateways for the HIV virus) or using intravenous drugs. There are also studies suggesting that uncircumcised men are at greater risk of contracting the disease from any kind of sexual contact. Blood transfusions, however, are generally considered safe due to the stringent tests applied to blood supplies.
“All the cures in the world won’t make a difference if it starts too little, too late”
Again, it all boils down to personally taking the required blood test. Obviously, the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is a major hurdle for many people, and changing that perception is an uphill task. Even well-meaning medical personnel might omit HIV testing altogether to avoid embarrassing patients who might otherwise have benefited greatly from advance warning.
That being said, the availability of HIV testing has increased with some community health centers and most general hospitals in Jakarta and other major cities providing the service. Those looking for added privacy might opt for the many private laboratories or clinics spread across the capital, or contact one of the various NGOs offering clinical tests for HIV/AIDS and many other sexually-infected diseases.
In the end, however, it falls to each individual to step up and decide to request testing. Understanding and discretion by medical professionals are on the rise, but it still requires personal awareness and determination to get the ball rolling. At best, you find out that you’re actually suffering from a bad case of flu. But when the test returns positive, just remember that the situation is now far from hopeless.