HIV treatment has improved so much in the past decade that what once was considered a death sentence now has become a chronic, manageable disease similar to high blood pressure or diabetes. Improvements such as antiretroviral therapy and single pills that have replaced the elaborate “drug cocktails” of years past are making HIV easier and safer to manage.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) combines drugs that fight the HIV virus in varying ways. It isn’t a cure for HIV, but ART does stop the virus from replicating itself and spreading throughout the body. It reduces the “viral load” to the point where HIV remains but there isn’t enough of it to show up on tests.
Once-a-day pills have replaced the complicated “drug cocktails” that had to be taken at specific times over specific days. Now Stribild, Atripla or Complera combine all the medications required to combat HIV (elvitegravir, cobicistat, tenofovir and emtricitabine).
Six classes of antiretroviral drugs are available for combating HIV totaling more than 30 drugs. HIV treatments are much safer and more tolerable than they used to be. Side effects such diarrhea and upset stomach usually are minor and temporary in most people. Long-term effects can include loss bone density and high cholesterol.
ART drugs work to fight infection, reduce the patient’s viral load and improve the patient’s quality of life, although they are not a cure for HIV.
However, the drug Truvada (combined with safe sex practices) is approved for preventing HIV infection in people at high risk for HIV.
In addition to the drugs that fight HIV itself, other drugs are available to treat the side effects of HIV or HIV treatment and to treat opportunistic infections that prey upon the weakened immune systems of those who are HIV-positive.
HIV specialists have established guidelines for using HIV drugs, with the goals of controlling the virus’ growth, improving the overall immune system’s status and function, suppressing symptoms and producing as few side effects as possible.
Although researchers continue working toward a vaccine, some have proposed using the elaborate drug cocktail to try preventing HIV in high-risk individuals who aren’t infected yet.
The life expectancy of people with HIV has increased dramatically because of the improved testing and treatment. Many doctors believe that with prompt diagnosis and treatment, HIV patients can live normal lives if they follow their treatment regime.
In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had approved an over-the-counter, at-home HIV test, the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test. The person swabs their lower and upper gums to collect a saliva sample, then puts it in a developer vial. The test result is available in 20 to 40 minutes. A positive test result means additional testing is necessary at a doctor’s office to confirm the result. A negative result also does not necessarily mean the person is not infected, particularly if the suspected contact has been in the past three months.
HIV peaked during the 1980s in the United States. Now an estimated 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV although 20 percent of those people don’t know it. New cases of HIV in United States reached a peak of 130,000 annually and since have declined to an estimated 50,000.