Being a gay man diagnosed with HIV in 2012, there isn’t much I can complain about when it comes to treatment. After the hell that so many went through in the early years, I feel pretty damn lucky to pop my pill once a day and rest assured that my viral load is undetectable and my body is healthy. Still, no matter how healthy I may feel, my daily medication reminds me that somewhere in my body there is a disease. And for many living with HIV, this little reminder carries a stigma they would rather avoid altogether, even at the cost of their health.
Some may think today’s generation should be happy with what we got. Forgive me, but I want more.
This month ViiV Healthcare and Janssen Sciences announced that Phase III trials for a bimonthly HIV treatment injection would begin in mid-2016. This year the two companies will be evaluating the commercialization of a long-acting formulation to be used as an injectable maintenance treatment for patients who have achieved viral suppression.
Injectable treatments have been the buzz in HIV treatment research for a while, but this announcement represents a tangible hope that a new form of treatment is within our grasp. In a few years, many people living with HIV might be able to throw away their pillboxes for good.
The current oral regimen continues to be a reason for poor adherence to HIV treatment. Also, the daily pill can sometimes be viewed as a symbol of second-class status. No matter how healthy I am, people still see someone whose health is subpar.
In the U.S., the majority of people living with HIV are not able to stay on treatment and maintain viral suppression. The possibility of a bimonthly injection wouldn’t just improve adherence to medication and reduce transmission, it would revolutionize the lives of HIV-positive people.
If you are not living with HIV, just try to imagine it for a second. Imagine being a young person and being told that you can still live a long and healthy life, but only if you adhere to this daily regimen with few to no mistakes. Sounds simple enough, but factor in trying to carry the enormous weight of HIV stigma and concealing your diagnosis to the outside world — as most initially try to do — and you have 365 reasons to fail. For so many, a bottle of pills isn’t just a bottle of pills, but an embarrassing reminder to yourself and others, that you contracted a virus that is avoidable.
That sounds harsh. HIV shouldn’t have to be something people are ashamed of. But what should be does not change the reality of the majority of people with HIV who are utterly mortified and almost paralyzed by the idea of people finding out their status.
Now, imagine being told that all it will take to keep you healthy and living the life you want is six doctor visits a year. Sure, it may not still ideal, but what disease is? It is a hell of a lot better than the alternative. An HIV injectable treatment represents an opportunity to resume life knowing that you are virally suppressed even if you are not quite ready or able to take on managing your virus full time.
Today, managing HIV doesn’t just require a daily pill. It requires a person to develop an entirely new state of mind — one that requires strength, an awareness of what it means to be positive today, and the support of friends and loved ones. If that were so easy to come by, HIV wouldn’t still be the problem that it is.
An injectable treatment would remove the daily reminder of a disease that shouldn’t but often does hold people back. It would mean the freedom of waking up and going about your day without a siege of panic because you forgot to take your medication. It would mean the removal of shackles to a pill bottle so sleepovers can be spontaneous and packing for vacations is done sans stress. Frankly, an injectable treatment would simply mean a better life.
I’ll take it.