Since the first diagnosis back in 1981, the world’s approach to HIV and HIV research has changed drastically. Receiving a diagnosis of the disease that 33.4 million people are currently living with means something very different than what it did 33 years ago.
In 1981, when 26 homosexual men presented with unexplainable tumors and other strange symptoms, researchers and doctors worldwide were at a loss for what to do. As they later identified the disease as HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, it dawned on them that they were dealing with a virus they were wholly unprepared to tackle.
In its early years, the life expectancy that came with an HIV diagnosis was heartbreakingly short and the answers for how to cure the virus were few and far between. According to Dr. Woodrow Myers, a public health official from Indiana, the life expectancy of someone who had HIV in 1987 was 18 months.
Actually diagnosing people who had HIV was an obstacle initially, seeing as it was a minimally understood virus, especially in areas of the world with a lack of information. Progress began when researchers developed a blood test that could be used to identify those who had contracted the virus, allowing researchers to start focusing on improving the lives of those with HIV.
As researchers gained more of a grasp on the virus, they developed the drug AZT, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1987 and was distributed to patients in the U.S. Unfortunately, AZT came with its own nasty cocktail of side effects, some of them life threatening, thus ruling it out as a viable solution.
Soon after, things improved when researchers developed a treatment that had multiple drugs in one pill and had some success in saving lives. These treatments were being administered up to 20 times a day, resulting in more unpleasant side effects; also not an ideal solution.
Fast-forward two decades and research has uncovered treatments that have made an HIV diagnosis less of a death sentence. Myers reports that the life expectancy with an HIV diagnosis is now 22 years, putting it along the lines of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Though there is still no cure for HIV, the treatments are more manageable with a greater variety of options. Some treatments require only five pills a day and often have minor side effects, making managing the virus less intensive.
Justin Goforth, a 47-year-old who has been living with HIV for over 20 years, believes that in today’s world, an HIV diagnosis should not be restrictive in how you live your life, explaining “You can go to your doctor two, three times a year, get some tests done and make sure everything’s on track, and then just live the rest of your life as you would.”
This is not to say, however, that HIV should be less of a priority. Two million people died of HIV in 2008, with 2.7 million new diagnoses, and many more lives have been lost since then. Impoverished areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia suffer greatly because they lack the education and resources to prevent and treat HIV, leading to often uncontrollable proliferation of the virus.
The progress shines through, however, as the number of people in poor countries receiving resources to treat people with HIV having increased 10-fold since 2002, and the standards of living have improved. As sexual education, treatment research and resource distribution improve, an HIV diagnosis becomes more and more manageable.
– Maggie Wagner