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WORLD AIDS DAY 2019: Three Decades of Progress in Treatment and Healthcare

By: Philip Qualo, J.D.

December 1st marked the 31st observance of World AIDS Day, an opportunity for the world to unite in efforts to stop HIV, support those affected by HIV, and remember those who have lost their lives to HIV-related diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first called attention to what is now known as AIDS in 1981.  

In 1985, the first HIV test became commercially available. But the number of people who died from AIDS kept growing. The first licensed drug, AZT, had to be given intravenously. At the doses initially used, the drug was toxic. Eventually, an oral formulation was made but it had to be taken in high doses every four hours and usually, only people in clinical trials could gain access to it. Activists had to pressure regulatory agencies to test combinations of new drugs because if each drug were tested on its own, any remission would be temporary, as HIV could easily overcome a single drug.

Since the mid-1990s, scientists have developed an array of antiretroviral drug regimens that durably suppress the replication of HIV. Antiretroviral drugs are used to treat HIV, to maintain the health of an individual, and to prevent transmission of the virus. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people living with HIV use antiretroviral therapy to achieve and maintain a durably undetectable level of virus, they do not sexually transmit HIV. Over the years, these regimens have been updated and refined to be even more effective, with significantly fewer side effects.

Today, antiretroviral drugs combined into a single pill taken once a day can enable a person living with HIV to achieve a nearly normal lifespan. HIV-negative populations at risk for HIV can reduce the risk of acquiring HIV by 99% by taking a single pill daily as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PreP. Emergency post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, also can prevent HIV from becoming established in the body if begun within three days of exposure and taken for an additional 28 days. 

The passage of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) in 2010 was another major milestone in improving access to care and, ultimately, health outcomes, for people with HIV in the United States. The ACA’s prohibition against denying or canceling coverage based on pre-existing conditions had a significant impact on individuals living with HIV. Prior to the ACA, many people living with HIV or other chronic health conditions experienced obstacles in getting health coverage, were dropped from coverage, or avoided seeking coverage for fear of being denied. Additionally, the ACA requires most group health plans to cover certain recommended preventive services, including HIV testing, without additional cost-sharing, such as copays or deductibles. Since one in eight people living with HIV in the U.S. are unaware of their infection, improving access to HIV testing has helped more Americans learn their status so they can be connected to appropriate care and treatment.

Despite the past 30 years of milestones in treatment, healthcare, and prevention of HIV-related illnesses, there is still no cure for AIDS at this time. However, the remarkable progress that has been made in the past three decades leads one to believe that the goal of discovering a cure may soon be a reality.