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HIV/AIDS: The Problem

Global Distribution of Cases and Rate of Spread
Antiretroviral Medication: a life-saving option
Brazil: The Success Story

Antiretroviral Medication: a life-saving option

Once infected with HIV, it takes a person approximately seven to ten years to develop symptoms of AIDS, at which point the patient is admitted to a hospital. Full-blown AIDS is marked by the suppression of the immune system, which brings on the onset of opportunistic infections and a greater susceptibility to bacterial infections, including tuberculosis. Opportunistic infections are infections that can be classified in two categories: those that are already present in the body (latent) and reactivate as a result of increasing immune suppression and those that are ubiquitous in the environment but are normally eliminated by an intact immune system. Once diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, a patient has only a few years to live if antiretroviral (ARV) medication is not available.

The treatment of AIDS has significantly evolved over the years. Initially, antiretroviral treatment involved taking 18 pills per day with significant side effects and limited effectiveness. Today, however, the recommended first-line treatment consists of three pills per day or fewer with minimal side effects and such effectiveness that the disease can be transformed from a fatal disease to a chronic one. Patients who have access to therapy fight off infections, gain weight, feel well, return to work, and enjoy their family life. Treatment therefore mitigates the effect of the pandemic on society, keeping parents alive able to take care of their children, teachers in schools able to teach, and healthcare workers in the hospitals able to provide care. Provided they adhere to their regimens, many HIV physicians and researchers believe that HIV-infected patients on today’s treatment regimens will die of old age or other illnesses rather than of HIV/AIDS.

Of all people living with HIV in developing countries, approximately 6.5 million are in dire need of antiretroviral therapy. This is in sharp contrast to 600 patients waiting for treatment in the United States. To date, only 15%, or 1 million of the 6.5 million in developing countries are able to receive therapy.1 154,000 of the patients who do have access to treatment live in Brazil, a country that successfully halved the HIV-prevalence rate in five years upon implementation of a comprehensive treatment and prevention program at the national level.2 Funding for antiretroviral medication is increasingly being made available and prices for antiretroviral therapy have dropped to $140/year and continue to drop. However, as we have highlighted in other sections on our website, the availability of cheap medications alone is not sufficient to ensure that those in need actually receive treatment.

  1. UNAIDS/WHO: AIDS Epidemic Update. June 2005.
  2. WHO. "3 by 5" Progress report. December 2004.