By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
The rise of the COVID-19 coronavirus is concerning for the HIV/AIDS community. Whichever way you slice it, HIV/AIDS is a serious kick to the immune system—and New York City is home to one of the largest populations of HIV/AIDS patients in the America. The speaker of our city council is openly HIV-positive and running for mayor, so as the city’s HIV/AIDS service organizations are starting to streamline services, this is the opportunity for the Speaker and the city to demonstrate leadership when it comes to addressing the coronavirus threat for those affected by AIDS.
President Trump’s national emergency declaration on March 13, 2020, frees up $50 billion in aid. In this column, I outline recommendations for individuals, HIV/AIDS organizations and our government’s response.
First, it is as important as ever for people living with HIV/AIDS to maintain their best immune health. The body’s immune system does not always fully bounce back even with the best care or in patients who have achieved low to undetectable HIV virus levels. In addition, depression, difficulty tolerating serious side effects, “drug holidays” where people take breaks from their medications and simply accidentally missing doses can all impact one’s immune health. Especially during the coronavirus crisis, I strongly advise all people living with HIV/AIDS to adhere to the treatments recommended by their healthcare providers.
Second, I advise anyone unsure about their HIV status or who believes they may have been exposed to HIV infection to get tested without delay. Left untreated, HIV rapidly disables the body’s natural defenses against infection and disease. Learn if you are infected with HIV as soon as you can. If you test positive, begin medical treatment as soon as possible. Treatments today can protect your body’s immune system and keep it in its best fighting shape against coronavirus.
According to HIV.gov, about 15% of people living with HIV/AIDS do not know that they are infected. This is especially the case among people in poor communities, black and Latina women (who may not suspect they are at risk) and our incarcerated populations. Unlike testing for coronavirus, testing for HIV/AIDS is well established and rapid. It can be implemented in mobile vans, make-shift tents or via at-home testing kits. President Trump’s plan to end the AIDS epidemic already includes a ramping-up of testing as one of its main pillars; our city’s most vulnerable populations require that we make this ramp even steeper.
Testing and linkage to care is not only good for the 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; it is prudent as part of a comprehensive public health policy to curtail the spread of COVID-19 disease.
When it comes to our city’s elderly patients living with HIV/AIDS, I recommend that we implement the “buddy system.” In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, buddy systems where volunteers checked in on those too frail and sick to take care of themselves sprang up across New York City. It’s time to identify those who are in need and connect them with those who can offer assistance. This goes for all our elderly, living with HIV/AIDS or not. I strongly advise any elderly persons, regardless of their HIV/AIDS status, to make contact with one or more potential sources of support. If you have no place to turn, email me at email@example.com and I will connect you to the office of the NYC city council speaker Corey Johnson. This time around, the city will need to rigorously coordinate the outreach effort in order to ensure that precautions are taken to avoid introducing our elders to COVID-19 disease. This time around, it might need to include the military.
Finally, I leave you with a couple of questions in areas where there is not enough information for me to provide any answers or recommendations. What happens to people living with HIV and AIDS in Africa, where in many instances, no one has access to adequate healthcare? We haven’t heard of largescale catastrophe on the continent yet, and I hope we don’t. And what happens the next time around, when we are faced with the next global pandemic? Will those living with HIV/AIDS around the world continue to face the worst of whatever the wind brings? –I hope not, but we can do more than just hope.
We must never accept living with HIV/AIDS and the additional threats it presents, certainly not when there is much work that can be done to develop a broadly-applicable cure for all those in need. Join me to enable a world that is free from AIDS at FreeFromAIDS.org.
Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D. is a biologist, a biotech inventor, a gay man, and the president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS (RFTCA). Visit FreeFromAIDS.org to help accelerate a cure for AIDS. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about joining RFTCA’s founders’ circle.