In the ongoing fight to end the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, healthcare providers are beginning to prescribe a pill that acts as a bulwark against the disease by decreasing the chance of infection by 99 percent if taken every day, according to
Truvada, also known as PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), is a combination of two anti-retroviral drugs that block an enzyme which fuses the HIV virus with a person’s DNA.
The pill also prevents HIV replication in the bloodstream, which ultimately leads to the virus’ death.
“Truvada is a game changer,” said Student Health and Counseling Executive Director James Wilterding. “It has been proven to decrease transmission rates. We have seen in the United States that it has been so effective that, in the past year, most healthcare plans have started paying for Truvada.”
Wilterding said he recommends that students have their sexual health and risk factors assessed by SHAC providers.
“An individual may not think that they fall into a traditional high risk category,” Wilterding said. “But certainly, if anyone — heterosexual or otherwise — has more than one monogamous partner, they could potentially be at risk for HIV.”
In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved Truvada for treating the infected by reducing their viral load: the amount of HIV virus found in their blood.
Scientists recently discovered that it could also be used to prevent HIV infection.
UNM’s Division of Infectious Diseases trained SHAC providers to prescribe Truvada and monitor patients, Wilterding said.
“We are seeing evidence that common chronic illnesses are exacerbated with those living with HIV, even when it is well-managed and under control with all the medication,” he said. “And the medications themselves have a high rate of side effects.”
Wilterding listed side effects from gastrointestinal pain to more harmful effects like kidney complications and an increase in cardiovascular problems.
‘A generational change’
After reflecting on the beginning of the HIV epidemic, Wilterding said younger generations don’t fully understand the dangers of HIV.
“We have had a generational change,” he said. “Initially, [HIV] was a death sentence... We feel that the message for lowering STDs and practicing safer sex has been largely forgotten. Understandably, because younger individuals who are coming into adulthood — when they are most sexually active — are not really aware of the history of it.”
The HIV/ AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s, with the virus began replicating in the bloodstream of thousands of people, bombarding their immune system and ultimately progressing to AIDS.
Simple ailments turned deadly as compromised immune systems could not protect the infected.
It took five years for Ronald Reagan to mention the disease publicly in 1985, signaling the first actions by the federal government to combat the disease.
“It changed how people interacted with the establishment — including the federal government — around clinical trials and research for treatment,” Wilterding said. “People found that it was being ignored and not being treated as the public health threat it was.”
More than 70 million people have been infected by HIV worldwide since the 1980s and more than 35 million have died, according to the World Health Organization.
Frankie Flores, the education coordinator at UNM’s LGBTQ Resource Center, echoed Wilterding’s concerns about younger generations not understanding the dangers of HIV.
“People think that if they get infected, they just have to take a couple pills a day and that’s it. But it’s not like that,” he said, adding that all queer men should visit SHAC and the Resource Center to understand the different ways to protect themselves from HIV.
Flores and Wilterding are also hopeful that an HIV vaccine will be developed in their lifetimes. Wilterding, however, acknowledged the many hurdles that medical professionals must overcome.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that there might be a vaccine for HIV in our lifetime,” Wilterding said. “There is research that continues to look at that, and I think there are ongoing studies that are going through the national institutes for health at this time. Although, I’m not seeing anything that can be used in the clinical environment in the coming months, or years.”
Andres Del Aguila is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Andres_DA95.