Information on when an HIV+ person will be given treatment, the specific aims of HIV treatment – to raise the CD4 count and lower the viral load – and possible short and long-term side-effects of HIV treatment.
Treatment for HIV
A range of drugs is available which interferes with the way HIV reproduces itself, slowing down the spread of the virus and giving the body a chance to catch up.
The different drugs interfere with different stages of the virus’s reproduction cycle. A combination of drugs is taken, which is why the treatment is called combination therapy.
HIV+ people will not automatically be given the anti-retroviral drugs (so called because HIV is a retrovirus). What will happen is that doctors will monitor the number of T cells, or CD4 cells, in the blood, waiting for the time when this number falls below a critical level. Your viral load, the amount of active HIV in your body, will also be monitored.
The CD4 count is a measure of the number of CD4 cells in every microlitre of blood. A healthy and HIV- person will usually have a CD4 count of over 500.
The CD4 count falls as the HIV weakens and destroys the immune system.
When the CD4 count falls below around 350, and certainly as it approaches 200, a person will be given therapy.
The aim of treatment for HIV is to bring the viral load down to zero – though there will still be inactive HIV in the body – and to give the immune system, or the CD4 count, a chance to recover.
What are the side-effects of HIV treatment?
Combination therapy can result in a variety of side-effects, including headaches, nausea, dizziness and diarrhea. The side-effects may fade – and it is also possible to experiment with different combinations of drugs to find that which works best for the individual.
In the long term, other side-effects might emerge, including:
· Liver damage.
· Neuropathy – or damage to the nerves in the feet and hands.
· Anaemia – a deficiency of red blood cells, this leading to tiredness and weakness.
· Lipodystrophy. This is a wasting and redistribution of body fat. Symptoms include wasting of the face, the arms, the buttocks and legs, a swollen stomach and a hump of extra fat at the back of the neck.
HIV can develop resistance to the anti-retroviral drugs. When this happens with regard to a particular drug, that drug will stop working.
This is a recognised problem. At the moment, it is possible to change the combination of drugs when resistance develops, introducing new drugs against which the virus in any one person’s body is not immune.