The ongoing risks of HIV
Although HIV/AIDS is no longer a life-threatening illness, public awareness about the associated risks is still vital, if for different reasons.
Nineteen-eighties and 90s television shows like Life Goes On or Degrassi High featured storylines centering on characters afflicted with HIV. Heavy messaging on the dangers of unprotected sex and how just one careless experience can lead to a death sentence was an effective way to educate a young demographic.
“Today’s younger demographic can have sort of a lackadaisical attitude towards HIV because there isn’t the same kind of awareness in the media about the dangers of the disease,” says Dr. Debbie Kelly (School of Pharmacy), who believes that ongoing research and public awareness of the condition is vital.
With the rate of violent crime and drug use in Newfoundland and Labrador steadily increasing, it may be more important than ever for vulnerable members of the public to be educated on the importance of getting tested for HIV and other infections such as hepatitis.
“The stigma against people who are living with HIV is still there,” Dr. Kelly explains. “That’s particularly true because we’re in a small province so sadly it’s still news and gossip-worthy if you find out someone is HIV positive.”
She says that the isolation and secrecy that people were forced into was the reason she decided to specialize in the disease.
“Everybody makes a bad decision in their life at one point or another, and it just seemed like a really heavy penalty to pay for a single mistake you might make,” she says. “Once I started going through pharmacy school and took on the role of a health care provider, it really bothered me that people with HIV were being so stigmatized. People were still afraid to touch someone with AIDS and didn’t know how to show their compassion, yet these individuals really needed that empathy and understanding, but it just wasn’t there in a lot of cases. That’s something that really affected me, personally.”
By the mid 1990s lifesaving medications became available that literally brought people back from the brink of death, and HIV infection became a chronic, manageable disease.
“Those developments revolutionized patient care,” she explains. “People were now living longer, healthier lives but the drugs caused side effects that were very hard to live with – fat redistribution changes to their body, diabetes, early heart disease – and having to take many, many pills each day. It was not uncommon for people to take up to 20 pills a day in order to both treat the HIV and manage the side effects.”
The high pill burden continued to be a problem until 2005, when the treatment became much easier.
Fortunately, great strides have been made in the treatment of HIV, however, the work is far from complete.
From May 1-4 in St. John’s, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Michael Grant (Faculty of Medicine) will co-chair the 23rd Annual Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research, as hosted by the Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR). Some exciting research data relating to recent drug developments will be revealed during this meeting.
“In the last five years or so the drugs have become much better tolerated. We’re not dealing with the same level of toxicities anymore, and now for the first time we’re talking the language of cure and whether it may be possible to eradicate HIV from the body. It’s an exciting time in HIV research,” Dr. Kelly says.
The conference theme, “Turning the Tide on HIV”, addresses new research outcomes, honours new investigators, and will discuss some of the broader issues related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. CAHR is the premier gathering in Canada for those working in all disciplines of HIV/AIDS research, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic.
“There will be a special session on the last day of the conference, addressing access to testing and treatment in Newfoundland and Labrador, specifically,” Dr. Kelly adds. “The session will include the unveiling of key findings from new provincial research conducted by the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador on Injection Drug Use, and discuss local access and barriers to HIV and HCV (Hepatitis C) testing.”
Dr. Kelly says that pharmacists will play a vital role in helping people live long, happy lives.
“Drug therapy will remain the cornerstone of HIV management for the foreseeable future, and while the future of HIV looks promising, it is important that we remember that this infection is not curable, but it is nearly 100% preventable. Medications may keep people alive but living with HIV still has many challenges. An ounce of prevention may be worth more than a pound of cure.”