The following essay was written by students in Judy Kaufman's The Biology of HIV and AIDS course and was published in the Dec. 10 issue of the Democrat and Chronicle.
In response to the essay by Dr. Amneris E. Luque entitled, “New Drugs Tame HIV but Cost, Side Effects Still Bite”, it is true that the miracle of modern science has done many great things for humankind. Unfortunately, there is usually a downside. In the case of new and improved HIV drugs, the downside is quickly becoming obvious, but too few appear to be concerned. Dr. Luque’s essay was certainly factual, but cold hard facts, seldom if ever, tell the whole story. She appears to have lost sight of the fact that AIDS is still a very lethal disease and there is no cure in the immediate or oncoming future.
It appears that the somewhat successful use of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) has lulled Dr. Luque into a false sense of security. Society, including doctors, the media, charities, and those infected, have worked hard to reduce the stigma of being infected with HIV and people now consider the disease to be chronic and treatable. This is very misleading. Some people, about half, with AIDS are living longer and enjoying a better quality of life, but what about the rest? Wrongly, the focus is no longer on education and prevention because the disease is believed to be manageable.
It is true HAART has caused a decrease in AIDS cases by slowing the progress from being HIV positive to AIDS. It is also true that HAART has caused a decrease in AIDS deaths by allowing AIDS patients to live longer. These tidbits of good news are all that people hear. The truth is that these drugs have horrible short and long term side effects, which include diarrhea, wasting, misplacement of fatty tissue, diabetes, heart, liver, and kidney disease. The “cocktail” might consist of 30 pills daily, taken on a strict schedule that is difficult to follow and there may be another 30 to 50 pills a day to treat the opportunistic diseases in AIDS patients. The average cost for a patient with AIDS in the U.S. is $34,000 per year, not including the cost of hospitalization or the medications to combat the opportunistic infections. The normal, active lives we hear of for AIDS patients on HAART consists of doctor’s appointments, trips to the clinic and the pharmacy, and endless hours of financial figuring because they are too sick to support themselves. And that is if the drugs are effective. Again, Dr. Luque puts a positive spin on a disease for about half of those on therapy. What about the rest?
The fact remains that AIDS is an incurable pandemic that ultimately results in death. Death for 26 million people, worldwide, by the end of 2003. If that news isn’t sobering enough, the rate of new HIV infections continues to rise, at a rate of 50,000 per year in the U.S. Dr. Luque says that the number of AIDS cases is decreasing but that doesn’t seem as impressive when you consider that the rate of HIV infection is rising, especially among minorities, women, older Americans, and heterosexuals. The disease is rapidly spreading because the emphasis has been taken away from education and prevention, the only method that has resulted in a decrease in new infections in the last 20 years. Well, let us educate you. If you are gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor, you are at risk for contracting HIV if you participate in high risk behaviors such as unprotected sex or sharing needles. It is not someone else’s problem. It is not someone else’s problem when your tax dollars are being spent in the US at the current rate of 16 to 17 billion dollars a year and when your tax dollars, at the rate of about 10 billion dollars a year, are going to foreign countries to fight HIV/AIDS. Clearly it is everyone’s economical and humane problem.
There is no vaccine and therefore no truly reliable preventative, and there will not be a preventative vaccine within the next 10 years. Meanwhile, at least 5 million people each year become HIV infected and 3 million die from AIDS. Antiretroviral drugs have done nothing to change these data since their implementation in 1996! AIDS is not fun, sexy, or manageable. It is a debilitating, terminal, and incurable disease that must be acknowledged and acted upon for what it is, instead of assuming that there will be better drugs or a cure before you or someone you love becomes an HIV statistic.
Written by: Andrea Costanza and Lisa-Nicole Danehy.
Signed by: all students in The Biology of HIV and AIDS course at Monroe Community College taught by Associate Professor of Biology Judy Kaufman, Ph.D.
Judy Kaufman, Ph.D.