May 18th marks HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, and across the world, this is generally used as a time to thank healthcare workers, community members, and activists alike for their work to try and find an HIV vaccine.
At the same time, it serves as a great opportunity to promote the importance of preventative HIV research. Contrary to popular belief, HIV does not “ruin” one’s life. It is a significant change, yes, but even without a vaccine, there are a lot of treatments available to help give those with HIV a chance at a normal life. However, the sooner you use them, the more success it’s likely to have. Here’s a look at the most common treatments, and what you need to know about them.
Understanding ART (And Why You Need It Quickly)
Right now, medical science has no cure for HIV/AIDS, meaning your body can’t remove it after being infected. Until then, the best medical treatments focus on controlling the disease and minimizing the risk of significant health complications. This is done through a series of medications called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Anyone with an HIV diagnosis should be using ART, if possible. It’s also crucial that you get treatment as quickly as possible, as its effectiveness diminishes after the disease progresses past a certain point.
ART is generally a mix of different drugs, which all work together to minimize the amount of HIV in the blood. The reason for using a drug combination is to make sure that individual drug resistances don’t end up reducing the effectiveness of the treatment. The bulk of these drugs are focused on shutting off or manipulating the proteins that HIV uses to replicate, resulting in a smaller viral load. Other drugs try to keep the virus from entering T cells and impacting the immune system.
ART is an intensive regimen, but treatment success rates range between 73% and 79%. Success, in this context, means keeping your viral load low enough that you reduce the chance of getting an infection, developing immune issues, or even transmitting HIV to different people. However, this requires you to stay on a strict regimen and keep in regular communication with your doctor to see if you are having any problems. The quicker you alert your doctor to issues with your therapy, the faster you can find a solution.
This is especially important because ART, even successful ART, can have some side-effects. These aren’t nearly as dangerous or problematic as the effects of advanced HIV and AIDS but are still worth noting. Some of the side-effects you are likely to encounter include:
- Emotional issues
- Sleep issues
There are also more serious side effects, like:
- Higher blood sugar
- Cholesterol increases
- Bone loss
- Liver/kidney problems
General Life Changes/Practices That You Can Start Right Away
As of right now, ART is your best method of treating HIV and minimizing the risk of complications. There are many anecdotal stories about other treatments, but none have the scientific backing that ART does. Anything else you are thinking about looking into should be discussed with your doctor first.
With that said, there are a few general lifestyle changes that can support your overall health and potentially improve your quality of life during treatment/with HIV in general. These include:
Eating well: A balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins will give you more energy and support your immune system overall. As an added note, people with HIV struggle a lot more with food-borne illnesses, so proper cooking techniques and food handling are essential.
Getting your vaccinations: Because of compromised immune systems, it’s not recommended that people get vaccines with live viruses. However, inactivated vaccines are generally okay. Discuss things with your doctor first.
Support your mental health: Mood issues are a side-effect of ART, but even in general, dealing with an HIV diagnosis and readjusting your life can be a difficult transition to handle. Mental health counseling can ensure that you deal with the change and rigors of treatment in healthy and safe ways.
HIV is still a disease that has a significant impact on people’s lives, but there are more treatment options than ever to try and mitigate its effects. However, to get the maximum amount of mitigation under these circumstances, you must focus on getting tested for HIV and STDs as early as possible. This is the best way to ensure whatever treatment you use is most effective.