the more than 20 years since the AIDS epidemic began, new treatments
have kept a diagnosis with the disease from serving as an automatic
death sentence, especially in Western nations. But many people living
with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, do not have access to these
treatments and those who do face a daunting medication regime and
the danger that they might have or develop a strain of HIV that
untreated, HIV is a virus that weakens the immune systems of those
it infects until they eventually develop deadly opportunistic
infections. Part of a class of viruses called retroviruses, HIV
kills cells known as T-cells that perform a key role in the body's
immune system. A healthy, uninfected person has 800 to 1,200 of
these CD4+ T cells per cubic millimeter of blood, but that number
declines after a person is infected with HIV. Once the number
of T-cells falls below 200, a patient becomes vulnerable to the
infections and cancers associated with AIDS.
Some of the illnesses
most commonly associated with a low T-cell count are pneumocystis
pneumonia, the cancer Kaposi's Sarcoma, and the fungal infection
thrush. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, a person has AIDS once their T-cell count falls below
200 or once they develop one of the illnesses associated with
keep HIV from reproducing and infecting new cells. When these
drugs are used in combination, they can decrease the amount of
the virus in a patient's blood and increase their T-cell count.
A higher T-cell count prevents the development of complications
from the disease, resulting in a healthier and longer life for
those infected with the virus.
have developed three general types of these drugs and they all
work to keep the virus from reproducing. When taken together these
three drugs, which include protease inhibitors and other drugs
such as AZT, are known as the "triple cocktail."
While the "triple
cocktail" has made HIV a chronic, manageable condition for
many infected with the virus, the treatment does have downsides.
Even though treatment can sometimes reduce the virus' presence
until it is no longer detectable in the blood, the drugs do not
cure HIV. Scientists believe that the virus still resides in the
patient's body, hiding in places like the lymph nodes and the
brain. The drugs also have harmful side effects in some people,
such as causing the onset of diabetes.
It is also crucial
that patients stick to their demanding drug regimes that can sometimes
require taking 25 pills a day -- some with food and others on
an empty stomach. If a patient skips even one dose, the virus
has a chance to make copies of itself.
to take some of the doses can also cause the emergence of strains
of HIV that are resistant to the drugs. This makes it harder for
the drugs to successfully keep the amount of the virus low enough
that it does not lead to full-blown AIDS.
-- By Karyn
Schwartz, Online NewsHour