I was surprised to read about the so-called “Berlin Patient” this week, an HIV-positive man who, after a unique bone marrow transplant, has no more signs of the HIV virus. This is such a huge step forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS and, as a member of that fight, I could not be more excited.
I have been outspoken against HIV since college when I was a board member of Dickinson College’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Spectrum.
Being a part of Spectrum was one of the best parts of my college experience, hands-down. This was where I found a lot of my friends and where I found myself as a result (along with the ever-important Arts Haus, of course, where I found my family on campus). We were constantly trying to raise money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Every December 1 for World AIDS Day, we’d arrange members of Spectrum to sit outside and collect donations in the student union for the entire day.
As Dickinson GSA, we’d also be involved in other campus activities for World AIDS Day. One year, we were even able to host parts of the AIDS quilt. Here’s a picture of two of my friends, Caitlin Conyngham and Katie Mosher, along with myself standing before one of these sections:
Even after I graduated, I went into the U.S. Peace Corps as a health volunteer. I chose to go to Malawi, Africa specifically so I could educate people about HIV/AIDS. Here’s a picture of my Malawian host family and me at the end of my training:
It amazes me how much has changed about the treatment of HIV/AIDS in such a relatively short period of time. Contracting HIV used to nearly be a death sentence. Treatment was not available to everyone who needed it, especially in the Third World.
Unfortunately, it’s really the Third World that needs the most help with this disease and it’s unlikely that they will receive the treatment the “Berlin Patient” was able to receive. Considering that most HIV+ persons in developing countries cannot even afford antiretroviral drugs, what’s the likelihood of any of them receiving “a bone marrow transplant using cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation, known as CCR5 delta 32″?
This being the case, while the thought of a possible cure for this virus is exciting and a major step forward, it will not be for those who need it most. The next step must be to find a treatment for those who cannot pay for it. Consider this: “Even today, only just over five million of the 12 million or so people who need the drugs actually get them.” This is not surprising when treatment for HIV in the United States costs upwards of $20,000 a year. What we need is to find better alternatives, better and cheaper treatments, and more ways to distribute them to those who need it most.