Victim of AIDS

The Battle Against AIDS—Will It Be Won?


The Epidemic Continues

Karen grew up in the western United States.* As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she maintained high moral standards throughout her youth. In 1984, when she was 23 years old, she married Bill, who had been a Witness for only two years. They were blessed with two children, a boy and a girl.

By 1991 their love had deepened, and they were content and happy. Late that year, Bill developed a white spot on his tongue that persisted. He visited a doctor.

Shortly after that, Karen and the children were outside raking leaves. Bill sat on the porch step and called Karen to sit beside him. He put his arms around her waist and said with tears in his eyes that he loved her and wanted to live forever with her. Then why the tears? The doctor suspected that Bill had been infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

The family was tested. Bill and Karen’s results were positive. Bill had become infected before he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses; he, in turn, had passed the infection on to Karen. The children’s results were negative. Within three years, Bill was dead. Broken picture of a familyKaren says: “I don’t know how to express what it is like to watch the once handsome man you love and intend to live with forever slowly melt away and shrivel to skin and bones. I cried many nights. He died three months short of our tenth wedding anniversary. He was a good father and a good husband.”

Though a doctor told Karen that she would soon follow her husband into death, she is still alive. The infection has progressed to the early stages of AIDS.

Karen is but one of about 30 million people now living with HIV/AIDS, a figure larger than the combined populations of Australia, Ireland, and Paraguay. Estimates indicate that Africa has 21 million of these victims. According to United Nations figures, by the turn of the century, that number could soar to 40 million people. One UN report says that the disease rivals the greatest epidemics of history. Of the world’s sexually active adults aged 15 to 49, 1 in 100 has already been infected with HIV. Of these, only 1 in 10 realizes that he or she is infected. In some parts of Africa, 25 percent of the adults are infected.

Since the beginning of the epidemic in 1981, an estimated 11.7 million people have died of AIDS. It is estimated that in 1997 alone, about 2.3 million people perished. Nevertheless, there are fresh reasons for optimism in the battle against AIDS. During the past few years, there has been a drop in new AIDS cases in wealthy nations. In addition, promising drugs hold out hope of better health and prolonged life.

How can you protect yourself against AIDS? What are the latest developments in treatment and vaccines? Will the disease ever be vanquished? These questions will be answered in the following articles.

* Names have been changed.

At present there is no cure for AIDS, and medical science appears unlikely to find one soon. While new treatments delay the progression of the disease, it is far better to avoid infection in the first place. Before we discuss prevention, however, let us consider how the AIDS virus (HIV) is and is not passed from person to person.

A person may be infected in four primary ways: (1) by using a contaminated needle or syringe, (2) through sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person, (3) by blood transfusions and blood products, although this threat has been reduced in more developed countries where blood is now screened for HIV antibodies, and (4) by his or her HIV-infected mother, who can infect the baby either before or during birth or while breast-feeding.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), present scientific evidence says that (1) you cannot catch AIDS as you would a cold or the flu, (2) you cannot get it from sitting next to someone who has AIDS or by touching or hugging a person who is infected, (3) you cannot get it by eating food handled, prepared, or served by an infected person, and (4) you cannot get it by sharing toilets, telephones, clothes, or eating and drinking utensils. Moreover, the CDC says that the virus is not transmitted by mosquitoes or any other insect.

Keys to Prevention

The AIDS virus lurks in the blood of infected people. If an infected person receives an injection, some blood along with the virus may be left on the needle or in the syringe. If someone else is injected with a needle that has thus been contaminated, the virus could be passed on. Never be afraid to ask a doctor or a nurse when you are in doubt about a needle or a syringe. You have a right to know; your life is at stake.

The AIDS virus is also present in the semen or the vaginal secretions of infected people. Thus, concerning prevention, the CDC recommends: “Abstinence is the only sure protection. If you do have sexual intercourse, wait until you are in a long-term, mutually faithful relationship, such as marriage, with an uninfected partner.”

Who Are Being Infected With HIV?

Worldwide, about 16,000 people become infected each day. It is said that more than 90 percent live in developing countries. About 1 in 10 is a child under 15 years of age. The rest are adults of whom over 40 percent are women and over half are between the ages of 15 and 24. —World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Notice that for you to be protected, a “mutually faithful relationship” must be maintained. If you are faithful but your partner is not, you are not protected. This often presents a difficult problem for women who live in societies where they are dominated sexually and economically by men. In some lands women are not even permitted to discuss sex with men, much less to negotiate safer sex practices.

However, not all such women are powerless. A study in one West African land showed that some financially independent women were able, without violent consequences, to withhold sex from their infected husbands. In New Jersey, U.S.A., some women refused sex if the man did not want to wear a condom. Of course, while latex condoms can give protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, they must be used correctly and consistently.

When to Test

Karen, mentioned in the preceding article, could have done little to protect herself against infection.

HIV testing before considering marriage is a wise choice

Married couple

Her husband was infected several years before their marriage, and they married at a time when the epidemic and HIV testing were in their early stages. Now, however, HIV testing has become a routine procedure in some countries. So if a person has any doubt about his or her status regarding HIV, it is wise to test before entering into courtship. Karen’s advice: “Choose your marriage mate wisely. A wrong choice can cost you dearly, even your life itself.”

How Can You TellWho Is Infected?

You cannot tell whether a person is infected just by looking at him or her. Though symptomless carriers of HIV may appear to be healthy, they can pass the virus on to others. Can you take a person’s word for it that he is not infected? Not necessarily. Many of those who are infected with HIV are not aware of it themselves. Those who do know may keep it a secret, or they may lie. A survey in the United States revealed that 4 out of 10 HIV-infected people failed to inform their sex partners of their condition.

Testing may help to protect an innocent mate in cases of adultery. Since HIV might not show up on a test until up to six months after infection, several tests might be necessary. If sexual relations are resumed (thus implying that the adulterer is forgiven), the use of a condom can help safeguard against infection.

How Can Education Help?

It is noteworthy that though the Bible was written long before the emergence of AIDS, living by its principles works to protect against the disease. For example, the Bible condemns sex outside marriage, demands fidelity within marriage, and says that Christians should marry only those who similarly apply Bible principles. (1 Corinthians 7:39Hebrews 13:4) It also prohibits all forms of substance abuse and the intake of blood, which defile the body. —Acts 15:202 Corinthians 7:1.

The Relationship BetweenHIV and AIDS

CDC, Atlanta, Ga.

HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus,” the virus that slowly destroys parts of the body’s disease-fighting immune system. AIDS stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” It is the final, life-threatening stage of HIV infection. The name describes how HIV has severely damaged the immune system, making the patient prey to infections that the immune system would otherwise combat.

It is wise to educate yourself about the risks and dangers that might be involved in contact with HIV-positive persons. Learning about AIDS equips people to safeguard themselves against it.

The AIDS Action League says: “AIDS in most cases is preventable. Until a cure is found education is the best and for now the only[communitydefense against AIDS.” (Italics ours.) It is good for parents to talk frankly with each other and with their children about AIDS.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Disease symptoms do not usually appear until six to ten years after a person is infected with HIV. During those years, a battle rages within the body. Individual viruses multiply and kill immune system cells. Immune system cells fight back. Eventually, as billions of new viruses are produced each day, the immune system is overwhelmed.

Various drugs have been developed to try to help the immune system, drugs with complex names identified by letters—AZT, DDI, and DDC. Though some believed that these drugs promised dramatic benefits and even a potential cure, such hopes were quickly dashed. They not only lose their effectiveness with time but also cause dangerous side effects in some people—depletion of blood cells, blood clotting disorders, and nerve damage to the hands and feet.

Now a new class of drugs has arrived: protease inhibitors. Doctors prescribe these in three-drug combinations with other antiviral medicines. Tests have shown that while this triple therapy does not kill the virus, it stops, or nearly stops, its multiplication in the body.

Triple therapy has brought dramatic improvement in the health of those who are sick. However, experts believe that the medication works best when given early to people infected with HIV, before symptoms display themselves. When that is done, it may be possible to prevent, perhaps indefinitely, the infection from developing into full-blown AIDS. Since the treatment is new, it remains to be seen how long the therapy will suppress the infection.

Triple therapy is expensive. The average cost of three antiviral drugs plus lab testing is $12,000 a year. Apart from the financial burden, a patient on triple therapy has to make many trips to the refrigerator, where the drugs must be kept. Typically, a person takes some pills twice a day and others three times a day. Some should be taken when the stomach is empty, others when the stomach is full. Therapy becomes far more complicated when additional medications must be taken to combat the many other infections to which the AIDS patient is susceptible.

A major concern to doctors is what might happen if a person discontinues triple therapy. Virus multiplication would resume unabated, and those viruses that have survived the treatment may be resistant to the drugs that the person had previously been taking to fight them. Drug-resistant strains of HIV would be more difficult to treat. Moreover, these superviruses could be passed on to other people.

Are Vaccines the Answer?

Some AIDS researchers believe that the key to halting the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a safe, effective vaccine. Successful vaccines against yellow fever, measles, mumps, and rubella are made from weakened viruses. Normally, when a weakened version of a virus is introduced into the body, the immune system not only reacts to destroy it but also constructs defenses that will successfully defeat any invasion by the real virus.

Two recent experiments with monkeys have suggested that the problem with HIV is that even the weakened virus can turn lethal. In other words, the vaccine might cause the disease it is designed to protect against.

The quest for a vaccine has been disappointing and frustrating. HIV has remained unscathed by dozens of experimental concoctions that would surely have slain lesser viruses. What is more, HIV mutates, making it an elusive target. (Presently there are at least ten families of HIV throughout the world.) Adding to the problem, the virus directly attacks the very immune system cells that a vaccine is supposed to rally in defense.

Economics also play a role in research. There exists a “low level of commitment from private industry,” stated the Washington-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. This was blamed on fears that a vaccine would not bring in profits, since most of it would be marketed in less-developed countries.

Despite the difficulties, researchers continue to investigate several approaches in the quest for a successful vaccine. At present, however, it seems unlikely that a vaccine will be produced soon. When a promising vaccine does emerge from the laboratory, then follows the laborious, expensive, and potentially risky task of testing it on humans.

Apart from the lack of drugs to cure or prevent HIV infection, other factors work against suppressing the disease. One of these is that many people, not willing to change their life-style, are willing to risk infection. In the United States, for example, the infection rate has remained steady, despite a drop in the number of people who have developed full-blown AIDS. The reason suggested by the Associated Press is that “many people are not heeding warnings about prevention.”

Healthy family

Marital fidelity
may prevent HIV

In the world’s developing nations, reportedly home to about 93 percent of those infected with HIV, there are additional problems in confronting the disease. Many of these countries are too poor to provide even basic health-care services. Even if the new drugs were available in those lands—and for the most part they are not—the price of a year of treatment would cost more than many people earn in a lifetime!

Yet, let us assume that a new, inexpensive drug were developed that would actually cure the disease. Would such a drug reach all those who need it? Probably not. Each year, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, about four million children die from five diseases that can be prevented by inexpensive, existing vaccines.

“Healing is much broader than putting chemicals in your body. It involves attitude, social suport, spirituality, and nutrition.”—Ruth Mota

What about infected people living in countries where they cannot obtain drugs for treatment? Ruth Mota, of International Health Programs in Santa Cruz, California, has helped organize HIV prevention and care programs in dozens of developing countries. She says: “From my experience, a positive attitude is just as important as access to medication. I know people who have lived with HIV for 10 to 15 years and who have never taken a medication. Medications are beneficial, but healing is much broader than putting chemicals in your body. It involves attitude, social support, spirituality, and nutrition.”

The Congregation Was Wonderful”

Emotional supportThe apostle Paul urged fellow Christians: “Let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.” (Galatians 6:10) The mother of Karen, mentioned in the first article, relates how the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses reacted when they learned that Karen and Bill were ill with HIV. She says: “The congregation was wonderful. When Bill came down with pneumonia, Karen was ill herself and was struggling to care for him and the children. The brothers cleaned their house, repaired their car, and washed their laundry. They helped them care for legal affairs and move to another home. They bought and cooked food for them. There was a genuine outpouring of emotional, spiritual, and material support.”

There Will Be a Solution

Is there any reason to believe that AIDS will one day be vanquished? Yes, there is. The best hope is contained in the words of what many call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father (Paternoster). In that prayer, recorded in the Bible book of Matthew, we implore that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10) It is not God’s will for humans to be forever plagued with illness. God will answer that prayer. In doing so, he will bring an end not only to AIDS but to all other diseases that plague humankind. Then, “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.'” —Isaiah 33:24.

Meanwhile, the best strategy is prevention. For many diseases, there are two options: You can either prevent them or perhaps cure them. With HIV, there is no such choice. It can be prevented, but at present it cannot be cured. Why take risks that endanger your life? Prevention is certainly better than no cure.