Health

Living with AIDS for Nearly 30 Years

Advancements in treatment, testing now nothing short of 'remarkable,' say researchers

David R. Blair of San Diego, California, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1983, only a few years after HIV was first reported in the United States.

At that time, doctors had no idea how the virus was transmitted. They knew only that gay men and Haitians were the populations with the highest frequency of infection.

Blair started receiving treatments in 1987. Of his diagnosis and the time shortly thereafter, he simply says, “It was dismal.” Back then, a long-term survivor of AIDS was someone who could outlast the 29-month waiting period to access Medicare.

The widespread public phobia led to intense discrimination, too.

Blair was afraid to use his own health insurance to cover the cost of treatments because he didn’t want to get fired from his job. At a holiday dinner with family, Blair handed a plate of food to his cousin’s kids. When the kids came down with a cold a few days later, the cousin told everyone Blair had given them AIDS.

Even the AIDS treatments were brutal. The only known medicine at the time was a drug called AZT, a viral suppressant that had to be taken every four hours. Blair set alarms all through the night so that he wouldn’t miss a dose. He went months without uninterrupted sleep.

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After years of treatment and chronic pain, and after watching 31 of the 33 members in his Laguna Beach AIDS support group die from the disease, Blair decided he needed to do something to enact change.

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He started a nonprofit in San Diego called Positively Speaking, for the express purpose of spreading AIDS awareness. During his decade-long administration of the nonprofit, he trained more than 150 HIV-positive people to become ambassadors, sharing their stories with the rising generation.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Blair was part of a larger global community that was spurred into action around this same time.

The first United Nations special session on HIV/AIDS took place in 2001, and AIDS was placed next to tuberculosis and malaria as one of the top priorities in the world. This special session marked the beginning of a worldwide crusade against the disease, and participating countries set goals to reduce HIV prevalence among young people by 25 percent by 2010.

In 2011, the countries involved in the special session met again to review their progress. They committed to reduce sexual and HIV transmission and transmission among people who inject drugs by 50 percent by 2015. They also set the goal to provide 15 million people with antiretroviral therapy by 2015 — an ambitious goal given that only 9.4 million people had access to it at the time.

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A recent UNAIDS report found these goals have not only been reached, but surpassed. The reports indicate that in less than a decade, the number of HIV-positive individuals who are being treated in sub-Saharan Africa has increased more than a hundred-fold.

“Ten years ago, we could never have imagined reaching so many people in Africa with antiretroviral therapy,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said in a media release. “Even in uncertain economic times, African leaders have shown leadership by increasing domestic HIV investments and expanding treatment access for people living with HIV.”

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said the key to progress in HIV treatment has been the development of rapid HIV tests. Instead of waiting for days for the results of a lab-based blood test, patients can get their results from an oral swab in 20 minutes or less.

“You don’t have to have a bunch of certified lab equipment to get tested,” Schmid told LifeZette. “They even have take-home tests now. Testing has really revolutionized, because that’s the entry point. If you’re HIV positive, you can get treatment.”

Now people can find out within eight or nine days of when they have been infected with HIV. The sooner they can be identified, the sooner they can start the treatments that will save their life.

Treatments, too, have come a long way from the early days of AZT. Doctors no longer rely on single medication treatments to lower patients’ viral load. A new medication called Truvada offers two medicines with one pill. And studies on a new long-acting injectable drug have shown that it could be effective in preventing HIV infection for individuals who are at risk.

“This is all in the beginning stages of science,” Schmid said, “but it is remarkable.”

Meanwhile, the search for a total cure and vaccine continue. And if the research trends hold true, we may even have the cure in the next few years.

Blair has been living with HIV almost for 30 years now. His survival used to be considered an anomaly, but today it’s more typical of what an HIV-positive patient can expect.

“What was for decades dismal and fatal is now treatable,” he said.

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