CHICAGO – A long-time AIDS activist and author spoke May 31 at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, about recent breakthroughs in research and potential issues persons with HIV/AIDS might face as they get older.
Long-time AIDS activist and author Nelson Vergel
Nelson Vergel, who lives in Houston, said that he has lived with HIV for 27 years at the beginning of his talk, “Promising Advances in HIV Cures and Healthy Aging Research,” which was sponsored by Test Positive Aware Network.
Even as the GLBT community observes a rather grim milestone, the 30th anniversary of the CDC publishing its first reports of AIDS on June 5, 1981, Vergel said much still needs to be understood about the infection, especially its implications for the aging process.
“We’re all getting older and there are things that are showing up in all of us,” Vergel said.
Vergel, a former chemical engineer, opened by discussing the state of current research on vaccines and cures for the infection. He lamented that many pharmaceutical companies, not having made tremendous profits in recent years with HIV/AIDS drugs in America, have ratcheted back investment in that area.
“When it comes to potent new drugs, we’re getting drier and drier,” Vergel said. “Unfortunately, it is market driven.” He did add, however, that some companies have been preparing new one-pill-a-day treatments that might eventually replace more complex treatments.
“I tell people, if you take one vitamin a day, you’ll get used to this,” Vergel said.
He also discussed Timothy Ray Brown, also known as “the Berlin Patient,” who seems to have had the AIDS virus completely wiped clear from his body thanks to a stem cell bone marrow transplant.
“It’s not until now that people are using the ‘c-word,’” Vergel said.
But while Brown’s story should inspire hope—Vergel’s own mother was ready to begin a fundraiser for him so he could have the same treatment—a great deal of research and testing must take place before Brown’s situation can be duplicated.
New studies in the wake of Brown’s case “are asking for a lot from people,” according to Vergel. Subjects are expected to get off HIV meds and undergo extremely invasive testing procedures, among other requirements.
Another consideration is that chemotherapy played so heavily into Brown’s treatment. “What are we going to do with the healthy (men and women) who don’t have leukemia?” Vergel asked.
By 2015, over 50 percent of persons with HIV/AIDS will be over the age of 50. As such, both medical professionals and the government will have to rethink standard treatments for people who are aging and have the infection.
“We’re going to live longer, but what’s our quality of life going to be?” Vergel asked.
Many infected individuals, for example, must contend with facial wasting. But Medicare usually refuses to pay for treatments unless a physician marks in the patient’s file that the person is suffering from a depression brought about by the wasting.
“Most people just want to get their face back, but you have to have ‘depression’ on your chart in order to have anything done about it,” Vergel said, adding that community activists need to start advocating on behalf of physicians as well as patients.
“Many doctors are refusing (to see Medicare patients) because Medicare doesn’t want to pay enough,” he said.
Vergel suggested that persons with HIV/AIDS be extra vigilant in guarding against afflictions beguiling older Americans. Bone density scans, exercise and vitamin D, for example can help stave off osteoporosis.
HPV infections were another condition to be concerned with. Vergel said the condition was common—“We’re not talking top or bottom, men or women,” he said—and concerned individuals should not be afraid to ask their physician about having an anuscopy done to check for anal warts if they think they might need it.
Doctors are rarely proactive about that particular procedure, Vergel said, adding that it was not the same thing as a colonoscopy, which usually is probing for gastro-intestinal issues.
Infected individuals are often “more frail by about 15 years,” Virgil suggested, so he said good overall advice is to be sure to take plenty of exercise.
“Exercise is the best therapy for most health problems,” Vergel said.