HIV and Younger People: "I can always just take meds."
Until recently, I ran an HIV/AIDS education program here in Chicago. After countless sessions with young people, during which we would give them information about HIV/AIDS, its spread, its prevention, its treatment, I began to pick up on a consistent sub rosa belief floating around in many young people’s minds: that the AIDS crisis had ended, or, more specifically, that HIV/AIDS had become something like a bothersome, chronic disease, something that, while not desired, could easily just be treated and, thus, “was no big deal.”
This belief popped up in a few comments to a post on Gay.com the other day regarding young people and the increase in HIV seroconversion. I find it a scary belief.
In the past decade plus, there have been amazing and dramatic improvements in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. “Cocktails” – the use of multiple antiviral medications – has led the way, as the cocktail approach has been able to fight the mutating nature of the virus once it is in the body quite effectively.
I mean “quite effectively” in biomedical terms, not “quite effectively” in “Oh, I don’t have to worry about getting HIV” terms.
Perhaps it’s a natural consequence of the successes of these advancements in HIV/AIDS medical treatments that younger people (people who have come of age during the time of the cocktail) would feel that HIV/AIDS has become something not to worry about, something that can just be treated and one can go on living a life as long and as healthy and as problem free as one would have without HIV/AIDS. Perhaps, then, this is an area where more specific education needs to be practiced, education in which young people learn that:
- Cocktails can and often do run through an effective life, forcing patients to switch to other cocktails, and other cocktails, and so on; with a limited number of cocktails available, this can (and often does) run out of options. Do the math.
- The body’s immune system changes over time, and the introduction of HIV into the body can (and often does) speed up the system’s inability to fight disease, even with HIV meds. This is why there is a lot of effort being made to find ways to “revive” the immune system. However, these are the early stages, and offer no guarantees of anything.
- Multiple infections of HIV can make it harder to get benefits from any cocktail, as multiple infections can mean multiple strains of HIV, and multiple ways that the virus can mutate.
As a person with AIDS, I could tell them point blank:
- Despite any popular myths, there is NO cure for HIV/AIDS and there is NO vaccine for HIV/AIDS;
- Cocktails can and often do lose their efficacy over time;
- Treatment of HIV is not a linear model that assures that you won’t develop AIDS (shit, I got AIDS after years of HIV treatments);
- That uneducated and uninformed risky behavior will heighten their chances of getting HIV, and can heighten their chances of having HIV turn into AIDS;
- That the meds have some horrid side effects;
- That they are expensive as all hell;
- That if/when HIV progresses to AIDS they are gonna get sick in new and terrible ways they cannot imagine;
- And they are shortening their lifespan if they become HIV positive, period.
It’s not the flu, folks. Despite all of our advancements in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, it’s not the flu.
(Photo: Getty Images)
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