"Medical evidence is clear: All people living with HIV must have access to antiretroviral treatment upon diagnosis. Barriers to access in law, policy, and bias must be confronted and dismantled. And as part of a combination prevention effort, PrEP must be made available to protect those at high risk of acquiring HIV...A new era of opportunity against this epidemic has dawned, and we must seize it."
-An excerpt from the Vancouver Consensus, which can be found here:
In 1996, almost twenty years ago, the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver announced the advent of highly-active anti-retroviral therapy, the first effective treatment that could stop the HIV virus. At the time, you could walk down Broadway here in Long Beach, and see all the hollow-cheeked faces of the men you knew would be dead in weeks or months. At the time, the HIV test had been around for ten years, yet few folks got tested because there was little that could be medically done to stop the virus.
Having a positive test result could be detrimental in other ways. If an employer would find out, persons living with HIV could loose their jobs--both from unfounded fears of transmission in the workplace, and the employers' more realistic fear that having an HIV-positive employee would increase a company's health insurance premiums.
At the time, I had been positive a little over a year, and I saw my CD4 count drop from a robust and healthy high 800s to an AIDS-defining less than two hundred. There were no physical signs of the virus, but inside I felt like I was in the cockpit of a race car, speeding straight for a brick wall. I could chart out the decline of my T-cells, and had months to go before the line reached zero. When the news came from Vancouver, it felt like that brick wall exploded in front of me, and by the luck of being born in the right country at the right time, I was given a reprieve. A few years later I got a dog, because for the first time I felt like I would outlive a dog.
Like the last Vancouver conference, it feels like we now have the power to change the course of the pandemic. Twenty years ago, it was about stopping the virus in bodies, and turning HIV into a chronic, manageable condition. Today we have the tools to keep negative folks from acquiring HIV and positive folks from transmitting it. And without having to wait for another miracle down the pipeline, we can end this with the tools we have today.