Recently, PatientsLikeMe opened a community for people affected by HIV, our first outside the area of neurological diseases. Since then, we’ve gained some 700 patients in the community, including a member who goes by the name of “BrightonBear.” His experiences are quite unique as he’s been living with HIV for more than 25 years and has seen first-hand many of the tremendous changes that have happened in that time. Through my conversations with him, I’ve had to revise a lot of my views about HIV.
A few years ago, I did my PhD on the psychological impact of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease); a mysterious and rapidly progressive condition with no effective treatment and little public recognition. In examining other disease areas, I would sometimes look over the fence to other conditions to get a glimpse of what the future could be like. My hope was that one day, with a lot of work, we could replicate in ALS the great medical success story that has been HIV. In just 25 years, survival time has gone from being very brief to being effectively normal. The mechanism of the virus is well-understood, and as long as people have access to treatment, the problem is solved. Right?Through talking to BrightonBear I’ve learned that things are rarely so simple! Whilst anti-retroviral drugs have undoubtedly been a great scientific discovery, they require an almost obsessive level of compliance to avoid the development of drug-resistant strains. The problem is: if a drug regime doesn’t fit with a person’s lifestyle (say he/she does shift-work for instance), it’s going to be very hard for that person to stay compliant. It’s also worth pointing out that many people with HIV never feel sick, except for the side effects of the medication. So, here you have people living with HIV who feel well, but are being told they have to be 100% compliant with meds that made them feel nauseated, fatigued, or even change their appearance. If they decide to take a break from their meds for a while, they may feel much better as they’re no longer experiencing the side effects, but they risk developing drug-resistant strains of the virus whilst they do so. This is a very tricky and counter-intuitive balance to maintain.What’s really interesting to me as a psychologist though are the psychological issues that affect people with HIV. A positive test could have a massive impact on past, current, and future relationships. It can cast a cloud over happy memories of past relationships, introduce issues of trust and intimacy in current relationships, and present a real challenge in forming new ones. When I was first researching HIV, I was surprised to come across special dating sites just for people with HIV; where people could find others who would not be as judgmental or prejudiced about what it’s like to live with the virus. Today, people are turning to social networking sites. AIDS.gov is also hosting a blog series about how people with HIV and AIDS are using online communities to connect with one another. PatientsLikeMe is profiled on the blog this week, along with interviews from some of our members.
The message that comes across to me most strongly, however, is that HIV is still here. Sometimes it feels like the media has decided that HIV is a story that’s been resolved; science found the cure, so roll the credits and let’s all go home. But, in my opinion, we need to shift our views and understand that whilst we’re no longer confronted by images of people dying from HIV, the people living with HIV still need our support. I’m very grateful to BrightonBear for sharing his experiences with us, and helping me and many others understand that the story of HIV is far from over….