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Battling HIV/AIDS

Editor, News-Register:

Word of Democrats and Republicans working together is unlikely to make headlines in any news outlet these days, but while political cooperation may not seem so newsworthy, the hard work of advocates and legislators alike deserves recognition nonetheless.

Earlier this month, both the U.S. House and Senate passed resolutions in support of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria, an international partnership that has helped save over 16 million lives and cut the mortality rate for HIV in half. Quite proudly, Congressman David McKinley along with both Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin co-sponsored these measures.

As we await more budget action in Congress, I reflect back on my career as an infectious diseases physician in West Virginia.

When I came to work at WVU Hospital as a faculty member in the mid-1980s, HIV had not yet been identified as the cause of AIDS. With no effective treatments for the disease, patients died within months. This lack of understanding also contributed to intense societal stigma that branded AIDS patients.

Over time, we saw the development of the first anti-retroviral drug, azidothymidine, or AZT, which was our first effective method for treating HIV, albeit with horrific side effects. Through the 1990s and 2000s, we experienced inroads with the development of additional classes of miracle drugs that not only suppress viral loads to undetectable levels but actually improve immune system function to the point that patients get fewer opportunistic infections and can possibly enjoy a life expectancy that is similar to an uninfected person. Now, with improved drug regimens and greater access to care, more people with HIV/AIDS are not only accessing life-saving anti-retroviral treatment earlier and reducing rates of transmission, but many are able to lead full and otherwise healthy lives.

Throughout the years of my medical career, our progress against HIV/AIDS has been nothing short of miraculous. With this renewed commitment to the Global Fund, we are on track to eliminate HIV/AIDS as an epidemic by 2030 and avert 234 million new infections worldwide in the next three years.

As we continue to celebrate AIDS Awareness Month and the holiday season, I am reminded of the debt of gratitude that we owe to the many patients, providers, advocates, and legislators over the past decades in communities just like ours throughout the world who have driven this remarkable change.

Progress like this doesn’t happen by luck, and there is still much work to be done. Despite major inroads, lowering the rate of new infections is persistent challenge. Access to quality care, stabilizing lower drug prices, and confronting the stigma of infectious disease also remain top priorities. All the while, hope for the development of an HIV vaccine remains strong.

With hard work, patience, persistence, and, most importantly, respectful collaboration across differences, it’s up to all of us to keep this progress moving forward until there is a cure. I thank the political leadership from West Virginia’s first district for continuing the conversation, making a strong stand for global health, and saving lives together.

Melanie Fisher, MD

Director of Global Health WVU School of Medicine

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