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The changing face of HIV

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Rock Hudson in 1985, Eazy-E in 1995, Liberace in 1987 and Freddy Mercury in 1991, all celebrities that were in the early wave of the AIDS epidemic. Decades later, and there is still no cure.

Last week, a drug company, Gilead Sciences in California, announced a complete treatment regimen for HIV infection meant for people who have not already received treatment with other drugs.

Throughout the extensive double-blind tests on more than 1,400 people, the treatment performed as well or better than two other treatment combinations, and brought virus readings down to undetectable levels in around nine to 10 patients after 48 weeks.

That’s great news, right? More advancements. One step closer to helping people live with HIV.

It’s nowhere near a cure, but it’s a step. It’s one small step against a disease that killed 1.7 million people last year across the world. Every day, almost 7,000 people contract HIV — 300 every hour.

It’s almost incomprehensible.

The numbers don’t lie, but there is a downside to all of these advancements.

It is estimated that by 2017, more than half of all individuals with HIV in the U.S. will be over 50. More older people are able to have sex thanks to drugs like Cialis and Viagra, but the downside is there is a lack of sex re-education for seniors, and the chances of getting a sexually transmitted infection become higher.

The baby boomers didn’t receive the same kind of in-depth sex education that most kids do now.

The other downside to the new medications, and people living longer with HIV, is the fear of the disease has been diluted.

In the 1980s, AIDS was considered a death sentence, and for many it was.

Now we are seeing people living for decades longer than they did 30 years ago, and the assumption is that HIV isn’t that scary, which leads to not always practicing safe sex.

But, in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.

These new wonder drugs aren’t without strings. Nausea, diarrhea, rashes, depression, headaches, anemia, weakness and muscle pain are all common side effects.

Canadian artist Joe Average has been living with AIDS since he was 27 and was recently the subject of a CBC radio documentary titled The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The focus of the piece was about a all-too common side effect of anti-viral drugs called lipodystrophy.

That long word is a condition characterized by loss of subcutaneous fat in the face, arms, legs and buttocks, associated with infection of HIV.

It’s the new face of AIDS, and no one knows what it is.

As if living with an incurable disease isn’t hard enough, when Average steps outside, people assume he is a drug addict because of his shrunken cheeks.

"I was in the supermarket one day and this innocent little girl asked me why I have holes in my face? I was about to explain it to her but her mum whisked her away with a fearful look. It’s just easier to stay inside," said Average.

In 1993, when Tom Hanks played Andrew Beckett in the groundbreaking film, Philadelphia, his character also had some physical markings of the disease, called Kaposi sarcoma. It’s a tumour that develops on the skin in the form of dark, red wine coloured legions.

"I want people to know that the miracle HIV cocktails comes with its costs... You survive the HIV but the side effects are harder than the virus," said Average.

So let’s make sure to remember that AIDS is a disease that will affect your entire life, probably in ways you can’t even imagine, and until we live in a world with a cure, wear a condom and don’t judge a person by their appearance.

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