Being far from the era when an HIV/AIDS diagnosis meant a rapid and often painful death is nothing less than great progress. But it’s also made the task of wiping out the virus for good a victim of its own success, according to a doctor on the front lines of ending the epidemic.
Dr. Benjamin Young was in medical school in New York City during the mid ’80s, when the AIDS crisis began, “a time of incredible suffering and death where most of the people I cared for up until 1995 died within months or years of their diagnosis,” he says.
The prognosis for someone diagnosed today is a normal, full life — provided that he or she starts treatment and sticks with it. Drugs have gotten to the point that a single pill a day is enough for many to manage their viral load at undetectable levels.
“We’ve gone from desperation and ignorance to an era when we have all the tools that we need to end epidemic death,” Young says. “The question is whether we have the political, moral and financial will to do it.”
Mathew Rodriguez, 25, the community editor at TheBody.com, an online community for those living with HIV/AIDS, says many people now consider it a “chronic manageable disease.” There’s also a new conversation happening about a different kind of drug, pre-exposure prophylaxis.
“PrEP was approved in 2012, and it’s kinda taken two years but now the conversation is really, really ramping up,” he says.
PrEP is a daily pill prescribed for people who are not infected but who have an HIV-positive partner or are otherwise at high risk of contracting the virus. The pill contains two medicines that fight HIV and work by preventing a permanent infection if the person is exposed to it. In a study, the drug was shown to reduce HIV transmission rates by as much as 92 percent among gay and bisexual men. The pills require commitment to a daily regimen and follow-up visits with a physician every three months.
Between PrEP and current treatments, ending HIV/AIDS is within reach.
“The drugs are more tolerable than ever, there’s less side effects, they are very effective,” he says. “And now we know a lot more about the science of being undetectable and passing on the virus and how hard it is when you’re in treatment.”