Is HIV No Longer A Death Sentence?
Nations across the globe are facing novel challenges each and every day, whether these challenges be the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the rise of malaria in the Philippines, or the Zika virus in Papua New Guinea and Belize. With such significant disease outbreaks on our horizon that are sensationalized by the media, we must be careful to remember the ‘old’ outbreaks that still afflict members of our nations – outbreaks such as HIV. Although we have made leaps and bounds to address and treat HIV, the virus and its counterpart disease AIDS should not be taken lightly. Dr. Tim Lahey talks more about this in his article Swipe Right to Connect Young People to HIV Testing, featured on April 27, 2016 in the The New York Times.
It is believed that HIV was first transmitted from chimpanzees to humans around 1920 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The HI virus was first reported in the American continent in 1981, as gay men in Los Angeles passed away with cases of a rare lung infection known as Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP). It was deduced that PCP was contracted intravenously in people who injected drugs. By 1982, HIV and AIDS cases were reported in European countries. In 1983, it was suggested that AIDS was transmitted sexually. In 1986, there were 2,323 reported HIV cases in Africa, 31,741 in the Americas, 84 in Asia, and 3,858 in Europe (AVERT 2016). By 2002, UNAIDS reported that HIV and AIDS were the leading causes of death in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, there were 35 million people across the globe living with HIV. As of 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 1.2 million lives had been claimed by HIV and HIV-related illnesses worldwide.
Now, in 2016 we know a lot more about HIV than we did in the 1920s. Yet Lahey mentions that the main challenge is “the low rate of HIV testing in young people.” In 2016, the Center for Disease Control reported that pediatricians and parents “are testing five times fewer young people for HIV than recommended by national guidelines.” Why? The world feels more comfortable with the virus because there are so many scientists and physicians who are dedicating their lives to this field of research. Additionally, we have become desensitized to narratives surrounding the virus. HIV is over-shadowed by 21st century disease outbreaks. Lahey highlights that an HIV status is “no longer considered a death sentence,” which may be the reason that many individuals choose not to get tested. According to the doctor, there are approximately “ten thousand people ages 13 to 24” diagnosed with HIV every year in America. Yet epidemiologists estimate that “half of young people with HIV do not know it.” Ten thousand diagnoses each year are not nearly enough if half the young population is ignorant of their HIV status.
The desensitization and lack of testing would be understandable if we had a cure for the virus, and the main challenge was distributing that cure. The conversation would be very different, raising ethical questions to ensure the right people got the cure, at a fair cost. But for now, there is no cure for the HI virus. The conversation must, therefore, continue to focus on therapies that reduce the effects of HIV. Lahey mentions this in his article, highlighting technological strides in the form of smartphone apps that offer GPS services and connect users to the nearest HIV testing facilities. HIV testing is the first step. What follows is antiretroviral therapy (ART), known to reduce HIV infection – there were 28.5% fewer deaths from HIV in 2014 than in 2009 (WHO 2016). People around the world who can afford the medications can access ART drugs that render the virus inactive, and arrest the natural progression from HIV to AIDS. Due to its effectiveness, and because we have no other ammunition with which to fight HIV, countries around the world have made access to ART national priorities. For example, the South African government fully subsidizes the cost of the first regimen of ART for individuals who test HIV positive and want treatment. In the US, Lahey reports: “most public health department and community health clinics offer free HIV testing to people of all ages, and in New York and 30 other states children under 18 have legal access to HIV testing without parental notification.”
We have to realize that the current climate of HIV is unacceptable. While a lot of work has been done in the field, there is much work still to be done. No matter how many reported cases of Ebola, Zika or Chikungunya exist, we must remain dedicated to the fight against HIV. We cannot treat the virus lightly. Perhaps HIV is no longer a death sentence in some parts of the world, but this does not mean that fighting HIV and mitigating HIV transmission should not be priorities for nations and individuals alike. Yes, we are living on the cusp of the discovery of an HIV cure. But until this happens, we must prioritize the reduction of HIV transmission and infection. We cannot turn our backs on HIV, or the thousands of individuals around the world whose daily experiences are dominated by the virus.
- “Global Health Observatory (GHO) Data.” 2016. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/gho/hiv/epidemic_status/deaths/en/.
- “History of HIV and AIDS Overview.” 2016. Retrieved from http://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview.
- Lahey, T. “Swipe Right to Connect Young People to HIV Testing”. The New York Times. 2016. Accessed 29 April 2016. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/27/swipe-right-to-connect-young-people-to-h-i-v-testing/?emc=eta
- “Timeline of HIV/AIDS.” 2015. Retrieved from https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/.