HIV, 15 years after my last class on the subject

Sep 5, 2015

An illustration similar to this was shared with us in class to help describe how quickly and rapidly the HIV virus hits your body and how your immune system reacts to it.

The last time I truly learned anything new about HIV was probably in a high school health class in 2001. My understanding of the state of HIV prevention and care for HIV+ patients has been almost completely uninformed since then. If I’ve had HIV on my mind at all recently, it was in reflecting on Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. It’s an excellent book, but it’s fiction and it’s set in 1986, an extremely important, but wholly different era for HIV and AIDs. My current understanding of HIV basically boiled down to: Treatment has gotten better, it shouldn’t be considered the big deal that it once was and people are managing the condition well enough to lead long lives. I had no idea why or what that meant.

I am taking a practice based studio through MICA’s Center for Social Design that’s aiming to address perinatal HIV. Day one amounted to a crash course in how current HIV treatment works. I’m confident I still have a very rudimentary knowledge of the moving parts and complexity of treatment, but here is what I learned:

  • HIV can now be thought of as a condition that needs to be managed, but not as a fatal disease.
  • If treated, HIV can be managed enough that the likelihood of transmitting HIV to another human becomes negligible at best.
  • What was once a complex systems of many pills, many times a day, resulting in barely tolerable side effects, has now been boiled down to one pill, once per day, with minimal side effects.
  • If you are with a partner that is HIV+ or consider yourself to be at risk for contracting HIV, there is also a preventative course of treatment that can significantly lower your risk of contracting HIV.
  • If proper treatment is followed, mothers that are HIV+ can reduce the risk of their child being born with HIV from 25% (no treatment) to a fraction of 1%.
  • If transmission happens between an HIV+ mother and a baby, it is mostly likely to happen at the end of pregnancy or during birth.

As a class, we’re thinking about the last fraction of a percent of children that are born with HIV. Where is treatment breaking down and how can we help address that? We’re just out of the gates, but right now we’re thinking about systems problems. We’re considering breakdowns in communication between health advocates/professionals and affected individuals, lifestyles that are incompatible with the structure of the existing medical system or the structure of the treatment system itself, and the position of HIV within the greater system of preventative health.