Treatment for HIV

A positive test result means that you have HIV antibodies, and are infected with HIV. You will get your test result from a trained counsellor or health care professional who should tell you what to expect, and should let you know where to get health services and emotional support.

Testing positive does not mean that you have Aids. Many people who test positive stay healthy for several years, even if they do not start taking medication right away. If you test negative and you have not been exposed to HIV for at least three months, you are not infected with HIV. Continue to protect yourself from HIV infection.

Living Positively

Although HIV is a serious infection, people with HIV and Aids are living longer, healthier lives today thanks to new and effective treatments. There are many things you can do for yourself to stay healthy. Here are a few:

  • Educate yourself about your infection. Knowing the facts on HIV and Aids can take away some of the fear of the unknown and give you the sense of control that you will need when you make decisions about treatment.
  • Make sure you have a doctor or health care provider who knows how to treat HIV. Sometimes you might have to visit several organisations to find a place that suits your needs.
  • Monitor your infection. Ask your doctor to monitor your body and blood and to keep you informed about your options and choices throughout your infection. See your doctor as a partner in your health.
  • Some of us need to get rid of old emotional baggage. Because HIV can often be the finger that presses on old sores, we should take time to evaluate our relationships and address the issues that cause unnecessary stress.
  • Living with HIV is about living not just surviving. Social activities, time with the people you love, and sufficient sleep and rest can make a huge difference to your health.

Basics on anti-retroviral therapy

At one time it was believed that after infection the virus remained dormant in the blood and only became active after a person had lived with HIV for years. A few years ago, scientists discovered that, in fact, the virus is active from the moment of infection, replicating constantly, and that it is fought off by the body’s immune system. This places an enormous burden on the immune system.

Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs stop the replication of the virus, keeping the viral count in the blood stream down to below 50 copies of HIV per millilitre of blood, which is to say the virus becomes undetectable in tests. The virus is still present, but the immune system gets a chance to repair itself, as it is not fighting an active virus.

Access to highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) has led to Aids becoming almost a chronic, manageable illness in developed countries. To be effective at least two and preferably three different drugs need to be used together to reduce the likelihood of resistance developing. The medication needs to be taken every day for life and monitored regularly with laboratory tests (viral load and CD4 cell counts) to determine whether the drugs are effective.

The South African government is rolling out free ARV treatment for all HIV-infected South Africans, but attaining general availability will take time. Places in public treatment programmes are limited, and may be difficult to access due to red tape. Private sector treatment, however, is significantly more expensive, but should be covered by your medical aid – though you will be expected to adhere to your scheme’s treatment regime.

The treatment of opportunistic infections should not be confused with ARV drugs. Here only the acute infections that attack the body when its defences have been compromised by HIV are eradicated while the underlying HIV infection is not addressed. Most opportunistic infections are treated with inexpensive off-patent medicines, and where patents are still in force, prices are generally reasonable due to government and NGO scrutiny. There are also generics of patented medicines available through compulsory licensing, particularly in India and Thailand.