HIV alert

The Western Star - - EDITORIAL -

Maybe you don’t re­mem­ber it that of­ten any­more. Maybe it’s been long enough ago that the AIDS epi­demic, and its ef­fect on friends and fam­ily, has faded into the past.

Com­bi­na­tions of an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs took HIV, the hu­man im­mun­od­e­fi­ciency virus, off the list of dis­eases caus­ing near-cer­tain early death, to the point that the United Na­tions said in 2016 that the end of dan­ger from the virus was near.

But ex­perts now warn HIV may be com­ing back, and com­ing back big­ger, nas­tier and more dan­ger­ous than ever.

The prob­lem, as out­lined at the 22nd In­ter­na­tional AIDS Con­fer­ence in late July, is that di­min­ished re­sources to fight the dis­ease, prob­lems with pub­lic health de­liv­ery and rapid de­mo­graphic change are com­bin­ing to in­crease the spread of the dis­ease. Along with that, new strains of the virus are ap­pear­ing that are re­sis­tant to the cur­rent HIV-con­trol­ling med­i­ca­tions.

Mil­lions of peo­ple carry the virus, which is held in check by treat­ment — but in­ter­rup­tion of that treat­ment, whether by con­flict or by some­thing as sim­ple as a diver­sion of pub­lic health funds to other uses, can cause a rapid in­crease in virus load in in­di­vid­u­als.

Last year, 940,000 peo­ple died of HIV, while more than 1.8 mil­lion were newly in­fected.

And some of the re­search is par­tic­u­larly omi­nous. In all, 22 mil­lion peo­ple are be­ing treated for the dis­ease. It’s es­ti­mated that an­other 15 mil­lion are car­ry­ing it, un­treated.

Think about this, from For­eign Pol­icy.com’s re­port­ing on the con­fer­ence: “A 63-na­tion sur­vey funded by (the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion) found any­where from six to 11 per cent of new in­fec­tions in­volved drug-re­sis­tant forms of HIV, and the trend was dire, with re­sis­tance in­creas­ing as high as 23 per cent an­nu­ally.”

That’s not a case of the sta­tis­tics work­ing in any­one’s favour.

And it’s not all far away, either. In Saskatchew­an, re­searchers have noted newly mu­tated HIV strains are mov­ing much more quickly.

“In­stead of it tak­ing years, some­times it just takes a month or a year and it’s much more ag­gres­sive than we would oth­er­wise see,” Dr. Alex Wong, an in­fec­tious dis­ease physi­cian with the Saskatchew­an Health Au­thor­ity, told the Cana­dian Press.

And even in a coun­try like Canada, there are clear con­cerns about the health sys­tem’s abil­ity to keep peo­ple on an­tiretro­vi­rals, so that they can live health­ier lives, and also not spread their in­fec­tion.

“The drugs work ex­tremely well,” Wong said. “The chal­lenge of­ten­times is get­ting peo­ple linked to care and keep­ing them linked to care.”

The mes­sage? There’s no win­ning yet. HIV is still a se­ri­ous health con­cern, and we for­get about that at our peril. It’s is not, right now, the clear scourge it once was. But keep­ing the dis­ease in check is ev­ery­one’s con­cern.

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