This weekend marked World AIDS Day, and some of those involved in the care of people who are HIV-positive observed the occasion Monday by taking stock of what’s changed in the protracted battle against a once-deadly ailment.
In New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025, nearly 38,000 people are living with the virus, which is now routinely controlled — but not cured — by drug therapies. Worldwide, approximately 37.9 million persons are living with HIV infection, including 1.7 million who were newly infected in 2018.
Ray Welsh is the manager of Harrison House, part of the Buddies of New Jersey group that has been offering support since the 1980s, when AIDS first appeared as a frightening and deadly disease.
“It started off, in the very beginning, where nobody would have even people be by their side,” he recalled. “So a buddy was somebody who sat with somebody who was living with HIV/ AIDS, took them to the doctors, took them to the pharmacy, would just watch TV with them, would walk their dogs.”
Having a support system is still an issue for some.
“One of the hardest things about living with HIV right now is isolation, still,” Welsh said.
Buddies has evolved over the years, and now provides a range of services, from case management to food and housing, substance-abuse and mental-health services, medical transportation and more.
“We serve about 450 people on a regular basis who are living with HIV,” he added. “We have another, I would say, about 1,500 people that we give services to throughout the year — whether it’s either food, or HIV testing, PrEP services.”
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a relatively new drug regimen for those most at-risk of contracting HIV. If taken at the same time every day, it can prevent transmission of the virus. It’s part of the pharmaceutic arsenal that’s been arrayed against the disease, medications that have changed the prognosis so that it’s no longer a death sentence, although it is still a life sentence.
“Antiretroviral therapy is very, very effective at treating HIV,” said Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. “A person taking antiretroviral therapy can reach a point where they’re so-called undetectable.”
A new campaign, U=U, pushes the idea that undetectable equals un-transmittable. Johnston says new gene therapy could one day lead to a cure.
Every year for the last three decades, Dec. 1 has been recognized as World AIDS Day, to honor those living with the virus – and those who have died, a number that health experts say tops 30 million worldwide. Victims are honored with quilts, put together through the NAMES Project Foundation.
“Each quilt is the size of a grave, and it’s meant to bring home the fact that the person represented is no longer with us,” said Jim Thebery, director of disability services for Bergen County.
The quilts are housed in San Francisco. Once a year, they’re flown out to the individual states for World AIDS Day, a somber reminder of the lives lost.
“It’s important because people who have gone before us were human beings whose lives were cut short,” said Welch.
He remains hopeful for the future.
“I really do believe that there’s going to be a cure soon. I really do,” he said.