Taking charge of your HIV is critical. Here’s what to know and do about it

HIV Medication (Image via The Central Voice)

By Frank Pizzoli

HIV is treatable – if you take the pills. Taking charge of your virus is the key.

“Life with HIV is better if you treat your virus,” says Patricia Fonzi, the CEO of the Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania.

And it gets better.

Combinations of current medicines can lower the virus in your bloodstream to an “undetectable” level. That means the virus as measured on a routine blood test does not register high enough to be “detected” in your bloodstream. (It’s still in your body though and we’ll get to that exciting development below.)

And, if your virus is undetectable, you cannot transmit it to a sexual partner. That’s really how it works. But you must be in treatment, take the medicines as prescribed, and maintain undetectable levels of the virus for at least six months.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the “clinical evidence has firmly established the HIV Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) concept as scientifically sound.” Pennsylvania has the 9th highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the United States, according to the CDC.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that an HIV-positive person with an undetectable virus cannot pass the virus through unprotected sex. If you can’t detect it, you can’t transmit it.

Moving into action, Fonz’s group recently launched their Take Charge HIV Program.

“There’s more to people than their HIV,” Shannon McElroy, the program’s coordinator, said. She has a deep history with HIV in the region. McElroy volunteered for the six local Black & White Party benefits held in York and Harrisburg. The venue raised more than $100,000 for HIV efforts within the region. (The Central Voice was a benefit sponsor.)

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“We encourage people, as our campaign says ‘Take on life and take control of your HIV,’” McElroy points out. The point of the campaign is to enroll people in treatment. “With regular HIV treatments, you’re able to stop the spread of HIV and live your life to the fullest,” McElroy said.

If you’re uninsured or underinsured, you might be eligible to receive free help right here in central Pennsylvania from leading medical providers, McElroy said. Access to care is a feature of the new program.

Why is access to care important? A cure for HIV may be on the way.

Researchers last July reported in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering natural sciences, including physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biology, a potential way to eliminate HIV from an infected animal’s genome. A genome is genetic material present in a living cell or organism like an animal or a human.

Scientists used a modified form of current HIV treatment on 29 mice. That treatment is known as Anti-retroviral Treatment or ART. It’s a combination of medicines, when effective, that reduce the replicating virus to undetectable levels in the bloodstream.

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To this known, effective treatment researchers added a sophisticated gene-editing technique that snips out HIV genes from infected cells. In various tests, the scientists could find no trace of the virus in 30 percent of the mice undergoing this double-punch treatment approach.

Why use this combination of interventions, both traditional HIV medicines and a gene-editing technique?

HIV can be effectively controlled in a person’s circulating blood. Unfortunately, the deadly virus remains in what are called “reservoirs,” or places like internal organs where the virus is not touched by the medicines cleansing it from circulating blood. And every so often, for reasons only partially understood, these reservoirs will spill more virus into the blood stream where the HIV is controlled by the oral medicines.

“This is extremely good news,” John Goldman, an Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine specialist affiliated with UPMC Pinnacle Health Infectious Disease Associates, told the Central Voice.

Goldman cautioned that this hopeful study is only partially successful with the mice and is an animal study.

“The clinical results point toward a way forward,” Goldman explained. The next step “is to improve the results with mice, then move to, for example, a non-human primate, and then move to human applications.”

“This could represent a way toward a cure for HIV,” Goldman said.

All the more reason to take charge of your HIV and be here when the cure is announced.

Frank Pizzoli is the editor of the Central Voice, where this story first appeared.