Living a Normal Life with HIV is Possible
Harmeet Gill, MD
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is an infection that attacks and destroys the body’s immune system. The first case of AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, was diagnosed in 1981. At that time, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was thought to be fatal, and people were fearful of contracting and/or spreading the virus. This led to decades of stigma. Unfortunately, stigma associated with HIV/AIDS still exists today, although people can live healthy lives without fear of spreading HIV if they adhere to proper medication and treatment guidelines.
HIV specifically attacks white blood cells called CD4. If left untreated, CD4 levels drop. This leads to a compromised immune system with an increased risk of developing bacterial infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and certain types of cancer. HIV can progress to an AIDS diagnosis if left untreated and is based on CD4 blood levels and/or HIV associated medical conditions.
In the United States, 1.2 million people live with HIV. Of those, it is estimated that 13% of people are unaware they have HIV, while 57% are in medical care with viral suppression and are living normal lives. In 2019, over 38,000 cases were newly diagnosed in the United States.
HIV is spread through IV drug use while sharing needles or by having unprotected sex with an infected partner. The risk for acquiring HIV is highest in gay or bisexual men at 61%, heterosexual partners at 28%, intravenous drug users (IDU) at 8%, IDU with male-to-male unprotected sex at 3%, and other causes at less than 1%. African American and Latino populations are disproportionally affected relative to their size in the population with African Americans having the most of any race living with HIV in the US. HIV also affects younger populations with those under age 35 accounting for 57% of new HIV cases in 2019.
Many people who have HIV may have no symptoms while others may have flu-like symptoms 2-4 weeks after becoming infected. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone ages 13-65 get tested at least once, with those at higher risk needing more frequent testing. Developing a relationship with a primary health care provider and discussing your risk is the best way to determine when and how often to test.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a treatment consisting of medications designed to decrease the HIV viral load in the blood down to undetectable levels if taken as prescribed. These medications typically do not have side effects. If the infected person’s blood tests show viral suppression, research shows they cannot transmit the virus to others and can live a normal life.
A worldwide campaign called U=U, meaning “undetectable equals untransmittable,” was developed to spread awareness that HIV medications are extremely effective, and those that are undetectable cannot spread the virus. This campaign is also important to help decrease and eliminate the stigma of an HIV diagnosis.
UNAIDS is leading a worldwide effort to end AIDS as a global health threat. They launched the 90-90-90 campaign in 2014 with a target that by 2020, 90% will be aware of their HIV diagnosis, 90% will be in treatment, and 90% will be undetectable. This target suffered during the COVID pandemic; the updated target is 95-95-95 by 2025.
A patient in the HopeHealth HIV program, who prefers to stay anonymous, shares his inspiring HIV story, in the hopes it will encourage others to seek treatment.
“I was released from prison in 2016 with only the clothes on my back and went to live with my sister. I tested positive for HIV while in prison, and my probation officer referred me to HopeHealth to continue care when I was released. I met with my doctor for medical treatment and also met with Regina Pompey, a medical case manager. I now see Dr. Gill and only have to take one HIV medication a day. I am happy to say I remain undetectable for HIV.”
He goes on to share benefits of the program. “Ms. Regina has been by my side advocating for me since I first came to HopeHealth and helped build my confidence. She assisted me in getting my medicines covered, remembering appointments, finding transportation when I needed it, helping coordinate referrals, and scheduling my other medical appointments. She also helped me live on my own in a nice place by getting the first and last month’s rent covered, and I received help starting out when I got behind on bills.”
In his personal life he says he is happy and making great progress. “With Ms. Regina’s encouragement I was able to get my driver’s license, buy a car, and find a better job. Over time, I was able to get my CDL license and began to make good money as a truck driver. I traveled the US, a lifelong dream. Now I have a local route, I can be home more and spend time with family, friends, and my girlfriend.
This patient’s health is now a top priority. He explains, “I don’t miss medical appointments, and I never skip my HIV medication. I’ve even started going to church again and don’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana anymore. The continued support I received from HopeHealth turned my life around, and I’m living better now than ever before.”
While there is no cure at present, patients who take their medications as prescribed and utilize HopeHealth HIV Program can become undetectable and learn to live a full life without the fear of spreading it to others. The Infectious Diseases team at HopeHealth focuses on support and providing up-to-date care for patients and encourages them to live their best lives. It’s a huge step forward for any patients who struggle with the possibility or reality of an HIV diagnosis and also for their family and friends and others with whom they interact. These services ensure living a normal life with HIV is possible.
Dr. Gill is a board-certified infectious disease physician, and has recently joined the practice at HopeHealth. He is accepting new patients as well as any former patients who may have discontinued HIV care. HopeHealth is also part of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program facilitated by the Health Resource Services Administration (HRSA). The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program (RWHAP) helps low-income people with HIV access medical care, medications, and essential support services to help them stay in care. For more information on the HIV Program at HopeHealth, call 843-667-9414 or visit hope-health.org.