Living with HIV AIDS
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was first discovered in Los Angeles in 1981; in the first place it was considered a condition from which only homosexuals suffered, but as the years have gone by, the syndrome (for it is not one singular disease) became more and more widespread until, at the present moment, it is every bit as prevalent amongst the heterosexual community as it was originally in homosexuals. Simply put, it can only be contracted as a result of the exchange of bodily fluids vaginal, anal, or oral sex, blood transfusion, contaminated needles, mother to child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding.
AIDS is a syndrome a situation in the body where the immune system becomes damaged as a result of the presence of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Very often sufferers are miss-diagnosed in the early stages because AIDS affects different people in different ways. There is a widely held belief that there is indeed more than one strain of the virus, with differing consequences. However, the most common symptoms of the onset of AIDS are: a mild head cold, a raised temperature for a few days, night sweats, enlarged glands, chills, weakness, and weight loss. The patient may experience only some of these, or all of them, or even none! The syndrome can affect virtually every organ and system in the body. There is at present no cure for the syndrome and, once the CD4 count drops below +-350, the sufferer has to take an anti-retroviral regimen in order to retain and prolong an acceptable quality of life. There is again a dichotomy of belief between doctors: some feel that ARVs (anti-retrovirals) should be taken at once, and others feel that this should only be a course embarked upon after the CD4 count(the number of T-helper cells which would normally counter-act infections) drops below a certain level.
For the purpose of this article, let us consider a particular case. We shall call him Joe.
Joe was not a young man and had not indulged in frequent or dangerous sex; he was not a lothario, nor was he promiscuous, having had the same partner for several years. There was no reason to suppose that Joe would become infected, except that his partner obviously failed to tell him the truth. He suffered none of the above symptoms at the onset of the syndrome, but collapsed one morning while going about his normal chores. The doctors scratched their heads and prescribed anti-depressants, and, within a couple of days the symptoms disappeared, leaving only a slight loss of co-ordination in his hands. This cleared up after several weeks.
About one year later he suffered from recurrent bouts or oral thrush (a fungal infection in the mouth causing a sore tongue and a slight sore throat) but these were quickly cured with Nystatin. Soon after this his legs and lower arms were covered in a rash similar to prickly heat which caused considerable discomfort because of the intense itching; but this too went away. The rash was followed by what appeared to be ringworm on his back and shoulders, but was in fact herpes. It was only when this condition refused to respond to treatment that he consulted a dermatologist and was advised to take an AIDS test. Needless to say, the test proved positive.
Without delay he consulted an AIDS specialist and had the necessary blood test, the results of which were pretty frightening. His CD4 count was only 17 and his viral load (the amount of HIV per ml of blood) was in the higher and more dangerous register. He was immediately put onto ARVs and warned that the dosage had to be always at the same time of day and taken in the same way. He was not advised of any possible side-effects. Each morning he had to drink an effervescent pill dissolved in a glass of water, a capsule, and a prophylactic antibiotic and the same routine had to be followed at bed-time, with the exception of the antibiotic. He had no appetite by this stage and was unable to take solid food in any form, but he had still not displayed any of the normal symptoms, nor had he at that stage lost any weight.
It is interesting to note that at that stage he was offered no counselling, no support, and no advice regarding diet or life-style. He was, however, warned that it was unlikely he would be able to look forward to much more than a few months of life, at best. He was also not warned of the side-effects which were possible as a result of the ARV regimen. He was not told of weight-loss, lipodistrophy (the loss and redistribution of body fat), muscle wastage, or the other probable problems he would experience as a result of the drugs.
After several weeks, he was once more able to take solid food, but during this time he had lost 12kg in weight and had begun to experience severe parasthesia (pins and needles, numbness and pain) in the feet. Because of the dire prognosis, he closed his two companies, sold all his extraneous furniture, and put his affairs in order so that he would not leave a mess behind him when he died. This involved the sale of three motor vehicles, two houses, and many personal items of which he felt he would no longer have any need.
However, Joe did not die. His CD4 count continued to rise until, about eighteen months after the start of treatment, this had passed the 300 mark. Apart from a minor skin-cancer, which was quickly and easily treated, and the fact that his teeth deteriorated considerably, he was able, on a slightly reduced basis, to continue his life as normal. However, there was now no income, little or no prospect of any bearing in mind his age, and, because of the stigma attached to the syndrome, very few people were aware of his condition. As a result he virtually retired from life; he no longer ran his companies, he no longer entertained, he had totally foresworn all physical intimacy, he was afraid to travel in case his symptoms worsened, and, in short, he became a virtual hermit.
Joe’s diagnosis was made six years ago and he is still alive, still active, still just as knowledgeable in his field, and still able to do a fair day’s work, although at his age and in his state it is highly unlikely that he will find employment. His partner, from whom he contracted the syndrome in the first place, died of AIDS-related complications in 2003 and he now lives in solitude, in the country, far from the many friends he once had.
If you should be unlucky enough to contract this syndrome, there are a few facts which will make life more comfortable and less fraught with danger:
1: Try to eat as complete a diet as possible. The body needs nutrients in order to keep functioning under normal circumstances; when that body is fighting a constant battle with an invasive and lethal virus, these nutrients are more important than ever.
2: Avoid places and situations where you are likely to be infected with something as simple as the common cold; stay away from theatres, cinemas, shopping complexes, supermarkets, and people in general who are coughing and sneezing. Do not travel by air unless you absolutely have to because of the effect of pressurisation and re-cycled air which often leaves travellers with a bad cold very soon after the flight.
3: Always take the pills at the same time each day; NEVER miss a dose, or the pills will cease to work and a new regimen will have to be started.
4: Avoid late nights and anything which will over-tax your body. Everything in moderation’ is a good way to deal with the problem.
The good news is that, while there may be no cure at present, ARVs at least improve and extend your quality of life for an indefinite period. Do not be afraid of who you are or of admitting that you are infected; it’s quite amazing how many people will be sympathetic and will want to help in any way they can. Those who disown or criticise you do without them because they were not worth having in the first place.