Purify me

When AIDS began to enter the public consciousness in the late 1980s, there was a great deal of confidence that the disease would be quickly cured, and would pass from a death sentence to an inconvenient diagnosis.

In some senses in the West, this is becoming true. An AIDS diagnosis now translates into years of expensive drugs and side affects, but not necessarily death, if you take care of yourself. In poorer nations, of course, AIDS still spells death, because a course of AIDS medication costs more than a person may make in a year. Some charitable organizations are striving to make AIDS medications more affordable and accessible, but it’s an uphill struggle.

AIDS is on the rise again, along with syphilis and a variety of other STDs: we are growing complacent.

Thus it was with interest that I read an article in the Chronicle today about a new form of AIDS therapy–a treatment still in the experimental phases. It seems rather costly to me, considering that it involves filtering blood and splicing in an enzyme that fights the AIDS virus, but it is much simpler than the drug cocktails AIDS patients take today. In theory, the treatment would last a long time, although AIDS scientists caution that it is not a replacement for retroviral drugs.

It intrigues me that we have reached a state, as a society, where news about controlling an infection is major, and gives a great number of people hope. AIDS and Hep C are both incurable illnesses, at this point, in that you can never remove the virus from your body. Yet, with certain treatment, it is now possible to reduce your viral load to undetectable levels. And this is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great goodness to be able to fight these illnesses. (Though of course the AIDS treatment has yet to be proven, and the Hep C treatment comes at a very high cost, in terms of side effects.)

But it does raise some issue with me.

We are growing more complacent, as a society, about sexually transmitted disease. Among certain populations, infection rates are rising at an alarming rate, and there is a great deal of carelessness about enquiring after and disclosing disease status. Especially among younger people who didn’t live during the 1980s and who don’t remember what it was like living under the shadow of AIDS.

When your viral load is at undetectable levels, you are still capable of infecting others, and that is a heavy burden. But if you’re feeling unscrupulous, it’s very easy to pretend you have a negative diagnosis. With the level of control patients now have over AIDS, one can live virtually without symptoms, and, if stealthy, conceal infection status. AIDS patients are no longer readily identifiable–they walk among us now, with a new lease on life. Your life changes dramatically when you go from being a normal member of society to being someone haunted by death, and I can imagine it would be very tempting to imagine yourself “normal” again.

I do want to see treatments for these illnesses, and I do want to see people infected with them living normal lives–but I also wish these rising infection rates were going away. I wish that people were being more responsible with themselves, and the lives of others. I would prefer to see a total cure, eradicating the virus from the patient’s body. I’m sure those researching AIDS would prefer that as well. I do hope that this new treatment proves to be effective–but I also hope medical professionals have long discussions with their patients about the ramifications of a negligible viral load.