HIV and AIDS awareness—How much do we know?

In December, it was HIV and AIDS awareness month, and with that the question comes up: how aware are people about the disease?

In a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, it was found that in the Georgia, 74 percent consider the disease to be very serious. But what about that other twenty-six percent?

Biology teacher Lora Lerner expresses her opinion on why HIV and AIDs may currently not be as known as it should be.

“HIV and AIDS has gone through a recent history, that it was this horrendously scary, fatal, incurable, virtually untreatable disease, to something that was more chronic,” Lerner said.  “So that changes very much the way we think about it.”

When acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first discovered in 1983, there weren’t very many treatment options available and the disease was treated as a death sentence. There is currently medication available to mitigate the effects of the disease so, AIDS is no longer as life threatening.

With one in four people being affected who are between the ages of 13 to 24 years of age, the number of increasing infected young people is growing.

Laura Kann, an expert in youth risk behaviors at the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that the younger generation is not taking this disease as seriously as they should.

“The young people today know HIV as a manageable, chronic disease,” Kann said. “It’s not something that can kill you in their eyes. So that leads, most likely, to an attitude that it’s not something that they have to protect themselves from.”

Usually, people who have contracted the disease do not get tested early, since they don’t realize that they have the virus. During the first three months of infection by HIV, the immune system tries to fight off the virus so even if they do experience symptoms it is in most cases unnoticeable. It’s only after the virus weakens the immune system that people start feeling the effects of the virus and go to the doctor.

Even though there are treatment options, people should still be aware of the consequences and get tested. .

“Yes, we have treatments,” Lerner said, “but they’re still not pleasant.”

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is one of the treatment options available which has significantly reduced mortality and morbidity associated with HIV and AIDS. However, with ARTs there can be  side effects, ranging from a simple rash to swelling occurring in the throat, which is considered life threatening.

In addition, scientists have a major obstacle to curing the infection with ART drugs which is namely the half-life of the reservoir cells .

The half-life of these cells is extremely long (44 months) which would take more than sixty years of treatment to kill all reservoir cells with current ART drugs.  

French researchers who are part of the strategic program “Réservoirs du VIH” conducted an experiment, in collaboration with other companies,  where they tested the viral production of reservoir cells on 12 different patients, each living with HIV. They isolated the cells expressing the genetic marker that they had identified as the production of protein. In a test tube, when they had activated these cells, they noticed that there was significant viral production.

The same researchers found a marker that makes it possible to target specific cells infected with HIV. Specifically, scientists will be able to isolate and analyze reservoir cells.  Reservoir cells host the virus and are responsible for its persistence even after patients receive treatment. Reservoir cells have the HIV virus but are not active; the cells are usually start to grow in the earliest stages of the infection.

Reservoir cells are in the patient’s body for their entire life, which means that the cells would always need treatment. The first step towards getting rid of reservoir cells is to distinguish between healthy cells and reservoir cells, and this is exactly what the HIV reservoir marker allows researchers to do.

By identifying a protein that is only on the surface of the infected cells, scientists are able to distinguish between the two types of cells. The scientists concluded that these cells prevent sterilizing immunity(protection against a particular micro-organism by being vaccinated against it).

Awareness of HIV and AIDS isn’t as common in 2010s as in the 1980s, due to all of the medication available for treatment. An understanding of the risks that come with the disease and even the side effects of the medication must be more prevalent in our society, because although a person with HIV or AIDS could live a long life, they would still have many problems to deal with.