The road to zero: HIV medications mark new age of treatment

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Twenty years since the first HIV medications hit the market, new generations of anti-retroviral drugs are now powerful enough to effectively erase the disease from the body.

When taken properly, the drugs suppress HIV to levels not able to be found by testing. Long-term research shows that this “undetectable” status means the virus cannot be transmitted to another person.

In addition, a medication called Truvada, originally used to treat HIV-positive people has found a new, life-saving purpose.

In 2012, the FDA approved the use of Truvada in people who are HIV-negative to prevent the virus from taking hold. Nicknamed “PrEP” for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, the drug, taken once-a-day, has proven to be 99 percent effective in blocking HIV.

The Chicago Department of Public Health’s latest report on HIV shows overall, the new cases of HIV in the city are down, due in part to HIV-positive people’s viral loads being undetectable through drug therapy. Health officials also credit the increased use of PrEP for the decrease in new cases.

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago worries that not every demographic is benefitting from the advances in treatment.

The CDPH’s report shows that while new cases are down by 29 percent for white Chicagoans and 10 percent in Hispanic residents, the black community saw an increase of one percent.

Howard Brown Health, a community healthcare non-profit in Chicago, is now concentrated on targeting minority groups not yet seeing the full benefits of the latest medications.

The Prep 4 Love Campaign is one of the many local efforts in Chicago and Illinois to increase the knowledge of those who are considered at-risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, gay and bisexual men have the largest number of new diagnoses in the United States. Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately affected by HIV compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Also, transgender women who have sex with men are among the groups at highest risk for HIV infection, and injection drug users remain at significant risk for getting HIV.

An estimated 1.2 million Americans are considered good candidates for PrEP, yet only 77,000 are currently on the medication, according to AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

One of the biggest obstacles is price. Truvada can cost upwards of $2,000 per month. However, manufacturer Gilead has programs to help off-set the cost not covered by insurance. In addition, Illinois residents are able to get PrEP at no-cost. More information on all the programs can be found at or by calling 1-800-825-3518.

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