The London Patient: Still not a cure
Most of us have grown up in the aftermath of a plague, and many don’t even realize it. Growing up queer meant that when I heard people joke about gays getting AIDS, I thought it was an inescapable part of my experience. I had come to terms with the fact that I would get AIDS and die. But as I began to research and learn more about the disease, I learned that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is not synonymous with AIDS. After that I never stopped educating myself.
HIV began silently spreading through the gay population of America in the late 1980s. We know today that HIV can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation and identity. At the time, however, the disease was known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and therefore was ignored by most. Many chose to turn their backs as gay men lay in hospital beds and died.
Once people began to realize that HIV was not divine punishment for sodomites, researchers began working to find treatment and a cure. As of 2016, HIV has killed 675,000 Americans. A positive diagnosis felt like a death sentence for many. However, in 2007 an HIV-positive man, Timothy Brown, received a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia and almost died, but then went into long term remission for HIV.
His bone marrow donor happened to have a genetic mutation in his white blood cells. This mutation prevented the virus from infecting the cells. Doctors were unsure what led to this and spent years trying to replicate the result. A research team followed 38 patients who had also received bone marrow transplants hoping to see a repeat.
Now, after 12 long years, it has happened again with someone identified as “the London Patient,” who was number 36 on their list. Another patient, number 19, has also been off HIV treatment for four months and is poised to join the small list of people on long-term HIV remission. While this is amazing and groundbreaking, we are still far from a cure.
A bone marrow transplant is not a feasible treatment for everyone diagnosed with HIV. Therefore, while the scientists figure out how to use this information, the rest of us need to focus on prevention and awareness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released statistics showing that one in six men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Now that the conversation has been revived, it has to stay alive.
America has let the HIV-positive community and the communities the disease affects quietly suffer for long enough. Everyone needs to do their part to educate themselves about the facts of this disease and how to provide support. Medicine has come a long way since the initial plague years and has allowed HIV-positive individuals to live long lives.
Now we have medicines like Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a once daily pill that can reduce chance of contraction by 90%, and Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) can be administered to someone following a possible exposure to HIV and also greatly reduces chances of contraction. Also, HIV-positive individuals can be declared “undetectable” after being on retroviral medication.
“Undetectable equals Untransmittable” is an important concept that deserves more attention. Once an individual’s viral count is declared undetectable, they are also considered to no longer be able to transmit the disease to a sexual partner. But achieving and maintaining the undetectable status is not easy and requires strict adherence to treatment. HIV treatment, on average, costs $14,000 to $20,000 yearly. So do your part and raise awareness, uplift HIV-positive individuals and destigmatize this disease.