As I arrived at the International AIDS Society conference this weekend, my mind wandered to the last time the IAS conference was in Vancouver in 1996.
Back then, HIV was still a mysterious and invariably fatal disease. It was also a divisive one, with patients frequently marginalized and the event itself scathingly labelled an “AIDS Circus Comes to Town” by some in the Canadian media.
Yet that 1996 conference provided a watershed moment: the arrival of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). This ground-breaking method of combination therapy literally changed HIV treatment overnight and meant patients with months to live suddenly faced the prospect of surviving for many years.
Fast forward to today and our world is very different. There is still much to do, particularly in places like Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, but in many cases, new and improved therapies have turned HIV from a death sentence to a chronic, treatable condition. As people with HIV increasingly enjoy normal lifespans, at Janssen we continue to seek out and collaborate with the best scientists to develop potentially even better, more convenient treatments. The social stigma has largely disappeared too in much of the world, replaced by overwhelming support, advocacy and hope.
Yet, of course, challenges remain.
Access to treatment needs to improve, particularly in the developing world, and we must guard against the complacency that has seen HIV rates increase in some areas, especially among young people unaware of the disease’s terrible history.
Prevention is also crucial. The possibility of an HIV vaccine gets closer all the time but is still some distance away – 10 years at least.
And finally, a cure. This is the most complex hurdle of all due to the insidious and long-lasting way in which the HIV virus infiltrates human cell DNA. There will be no silver bullet and discovering how to heal the disease as well as treat it will take a global and collaborative effort from the medical, scientific and patient communities alike.
In my job, I’m lucky enough to be at the heart of that effort. HIV has touched my life both professionally and personally, whether it has been through my work caring for patients in my home country of Canada in the early 1990’s or working with the teams at Janssen early 2000’s, I have met and worked with some of the most determined and inspiring people on the planet!
The people and their families, the ones who were bravely fighting the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS every day, motivated me to make a difference as a newly-qualified clinician and their memories continue to drive me and my colleagues, many of whom share similar experiences, forward today.
For all of us, the last 20 years have been absolutely remarkable. To truly make #MakeHIVstory, so too must the next 20.