While the covid-19 pandemic appears to be waning, the “other pandemic” continues. Hiv/AIDS has affected communities for over 40 years now with devastating impacts. Brian Risley has been an HIV treatment educator for over 20 years. He recalls the impact that HIV and aids had on his own life.
“I was in my 20s when I lost a lot of my friends. And I remember trying to get my mother to understand this, and it wasn’t until she was in her 70s and started to lose all her friends when she said to me, you know, now I know I get it, now I know, and you were so young and you lost all your friends.”
Treatment has progressed a lot since the peak of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s.
But in forty years, there has yet to be an effective HIV vaccine introduced. Risley says it’s because the virus itself mutates so often that vaccines can’t copy all the variables.
“its proteins are kind of like, like the gopher game, banging the gopher. These proteins are showing up as a flag and then they’re disappearing and they’re showing.” - Risley [:12.1]
These whac-a-mole proteins mean that our bodies continually have to produce different antibodies to attack the virus — even as it infects and destroys the very cells responsible for fighting viruses. [sciencenews.Org]
Public health researcher dr. Jeffrey Klausner says a vaccine may never be viable. He also isn’t too optimistic about the latest cures.
“three cures, 80 million deaths. So clearly, the virus is winning.” - Klausner [:04.3]
Klausner says the key to fighting HIV is making prevention broadly accessible, whether that is a vaccine down the line or something we already have, like condoms.
“We need to make tools available the same way we have guardrails on the highways.”
Klausner spent time working on HIV prevention in South Africa. He says attitudes towards prevention there make a big difference.
“They have tissues, if they have toilet paper, they have condoms.”
But condoms aren’t the only form of prevention we have available. I’ll let HIV pharmacist Dr. Carla Blieden explain another.
“Prep is pre-exposure prophylaxis. So it’s a medication you can take to actually prevent transmission of HIV to yourself.”
People who are at risk for HIV face an uphill battle when it comes to staying on their medications.
“And sometimes the barriers are as simple as I’m forgetting to take my medication and sometimes the barrier is I live with people who don’t know my HIV status and so I have to hide my medications … or there was a problem with my insurance and they weren’t covered.” - Blieden [:18]
“When you finally get one of those patients and take their meds, you want to throw a party.”
Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists aren’t the only ones helping people with hiv to meet their needs. Janelle l’heureux runs a program that distributes groceries to hiv positive people struggling with food insecurity.
“To me nutrition is a lifesaving treatment.”
L’heureux showed me the contents of a typical grocery bag her program distributes to clients. This is the kitchen less bag, specifically designed to make food accessible for unhoused people.
“So everything either has a pop top. No can openers necessary, but it still has vitamin a, the greens, starchy stuff, dates. There’s cereal, there’s these are dried milk, powdered milk, toothbrush, toothpaste, beef jerky. Pouches of tuna or salmon, so they could eat it right out of the pouch, shelf stable cheeses.”
L’heureux says her program saves clients around a hundred dollars a week. For some people, these savings mean they get to keep up with rent. They can take their medications more consistently. With their other needs met, patients can focus on recovery.
For Annenberg media, I’m Thalia Halloran.