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HIV: Just Another Chronic Disease?

By Sarah Sacco

July 12, 2011

Many people are fond of saying that HIV is a chronic disease these days -- comparable to diabetes. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

I was recently asked this question, and it made us both start thinking. What with the medical advances of the past decade, and the miracle of antiretrovirals (at least those of us who are blessed to be able to get them), we HIVers are living these days. I've heard of people who have been alive for the full 30 years of the known epidemic. Through my work, this blog, and reading I've been doing from people living with other chronic diagnoses, it seems that there are a lot of comparisons to be made. And yet ...

In terms of disease process, I have been reading lots of articles lately about the effects of long-term inflammation (caused by the HIV virus) on the body. I have experienced, myself, a slow and steady decline in my personal energy and stamina, and I've started to notice that when I get sick, it isn't really just a cold anymore. Often, other little buggies help themselves to my body at the same time. It seems that I have perhaps come to a place through faithfully taking my medications as prescribed where I am okay -- but slowly getting worse?

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People I know who have diabetes describe their diagnosis in a similar way. I have heard it described as a "slow death," a falling apart of the body in little pieces. I hear people describe the depression that comes from dealing with all the little, sometimes imperceptibly small changes in health. The struggle of daily taking medications, of fighting with insurance companies, of attempting some kind of life. I have heard from people who deal with the financial difficulties a chronic health problem causes. Like HIV, diabetes left untreated is fatal. Really, we can all relate to one another. Our stories share a common thread -- we speak the same "language" of the sick. In these ways I think that HIV is just like any other disease.

And yet, it is still very difficult to tell people that we have HIV. People assume things about me based solely upon my diagnosis -- things that are not true. I did contract this virus as a consequence of my own choices. But these same things can also be said about people who live with diabetes. The difference is that with HIV we are dealing with more morally charged choices than those that lead to diabetes or heart disease. Or are we?? And really, does it matter how we got sick? Do we have to blame the sick people?

It seems to me that in some ways we WANT HIV to be different. Historically this epidemic has carried with it political fights, human rights issues, and great stigma. Being of the age, sex, and geographical place I am in, I know I do not fully appreciate these realities (although I do try through listening to others, reading, etc., to gain some understanding). I know that we walk a thin line -- trying to educate others to make smart choices and thus stop the epidemic, while at the same time trying to create compassion for people who are truly sick, suffering, and dying. Perhaps that is the challenge in attempting to prevent ANY disease.

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See Also
Ten Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
Depression and HIV
Feeling Good Again: Mental Healthcare Works!
More Personal Viewpoints on Coping With HIV

Reader Comments:

Comment by: sven p. (Round Rock, Texas) Wed., Jul. 20, 2011 at 6:27 pm EDT
Sarah, I have been struggling with the term "chronic" myself for a while. I understand the medical justification for it at this point, I feel however that with the word "chronic" comes a dismissal, a "lesser" level of severity, a pat on the head and a "there there, its no big deal anymore..its chronic" attitude, which personally just pisses me off. However, your article did bring up some great and very human points that I did not consider or thought of in greater detail. So thank you :)

Sven
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Comment by: Mico (Wash. DC) Thu., Jul. 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm EDT
I am sure the medical establishment is happy to list hiv as a chronic condition like diabetes and those of us with need to be glad it is being treated like this. BUT, it is a stigma worse then diabetes, some people do not want to touch a person infected with hiv, even if doing well otherwise and in spite of the hiv. That is hard on a person, when it involves family members, loved ones who turn away, even more when same gender loving people decide they don't want to bother with you because you now have hiv. I am worn out, recently found my vit. d levels are extremely low, yet I am determined not to let this get to me emotionally. It would be nice to have family who would give me a hug and say, I'm gonna be okay. That happens with diabetes, it does not with hiv. See the difference? I hope the medical profession takes notice. I know there is nothing they can do about it, but I do hope they realize, it is not exactly like diabetes. It is chronic condition with an unkind human relating twist.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Sarah Mon., Oct. 3, 2011 at 11:07 am EDT
Mico,
Thank you so much for sharing. I totally feel the lack of unstrange hugs, etc. The stigma is definitely the hardest. Peace


Comment by: JC (Miami, FL) Thu., Jul. 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm EDT
Excellent article for HIV had "lost" its importance within the last few years mostly due to the near miraculous introduction of the new anti-viral medications which have brought many "back" from near death. Actually you rarely hear or see "anything HIV" in any of medias. It appears since people are now living with it under the "manageable chronic disease" category -its immediacy has nearly disappeared - even my doctor tells its just a chronic disease now like diabetes.
The question lies regarding the long term effects of these medications ( bottom line it is chemotherapy)and long term effects of the disease itself on the body.
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What's Normal Anyway?


Sarah and Carmen Anthony Sacco

Sarah and Carmen Anthony Sacco

Carmen Anthony, Sarah and Abbi often ponder the meaning of "normal." Anthony's music brought him healing after his diagnosis with AIDS in 2000 when he was given six months to live. Sarah was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 at the age of 23. They met at a support group and embarked on life's adventure together. Then, along came Abbi -- a precious gift free from HIV! Life as a family with AIDS is not what anyone imagined, but it is full of music, blessings, and chaos!


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