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Aggressive form of HIV discovered in NYC

Michael Justiniano said he watched his father die of AIDS. (Cary Conover for NYT)

It was only a matter of time before this happened. Not unlike bacteria mutating to resist current antibiotics because of over-use, the virus that causes AIDS had great potential to mutate to become treatment-resistant to the current cocktail of medicines. The aggressive nature of this strain is extremely dangerous, as it destroys the immune system within months.

The real culprit here is that safer sex practices are not being followed in at-risk populations, and the behavior is paired with an increase in recreational drug use, it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the beginning of the AIDS era as we know it; it means enough time has passed that young, sexually active people have no memory of that time. The highly visible death and danger is an abstraction to them, as the anti-retroviral drugs have presented a false sense of health security. We cannot let this happen all over again. (NYT):

City health officials announced on Friday that they had detected the rare strain of H.I.V. in one man whose case they described as particularly worrisome because it merged two unusual features: resistance to nearly all anti-retroviral drugs used to treat the infection, and stunningly swift progression from infection to full-fledged AIDS.

That combination, the officials said, could signal a new, more menacing kind of infection, and its discovery set in motion an anxious search by city workers to find the man’s sexual partners and have them tested.

The infected man, gay and in his 40’s, tested negative for H.I.V. in May 2003, then tested positive last December, health officials said. Investigators believe he may have contracted the virus in October when he engaged in unprotected anal sex with multiple partners while using crystal methamphetamine. By last month, it was clear that three of the four classes of anti-retroviral drugs used against H.I.V. were not working in this case, and the man showed signs of AIDS, including rapid weight loss, a high level of the virus in his bloodstream, and a depleted supply of crucial immune system cells.

Even though the anti-retroviral “cocktail” has extended many lives, some infected people still deteriorate and end up with AIDS, but that process usually takes many years. Doctors say that for a patient to reach that stage in a matter of months is extremely troubling.

AIDS experts and public health officials have long maintained that since the development of anti-retroviral drugs in the 1990’s, people have developed a false sense that AIDS no longer poses a significant threat, leading to a rise in unprotected sex. Clear evidence of the trend has been seen in the growing number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, chlamydia, and lymphogranuloma.

Bulia Ramsey has AIDS. She is one of the estimated 25,000 people in North Carolina quietly battling HIV. Photo by Corey Lowenstein/N&O;

This of course, is after we received the harsh truth last week that AIDS is creeping back in NC. African-Americans, while only 22 percent of the population, are 71 percent of the state’s cases and black women are 14 times as likely to contract HIV as white women. Most of the women that have contracted it are poor, black and had sex with a man they thought was monogamous.

Too large a segment of the black church, a space that has the potential to reach so many at risk, has not taken a lead to address the spread of HIV, even as these numbers grow. In fact, there’s been a more vocal stridently homophobic voice coming from some church leaders, such as first-class local homophobe and pious pastor Patrick Wooden, Sr. of Raleigh’s Upper Room Church of God. His views are well known.

“I cannot stand by and say nothing while this wicked phenomenon takes place.”

“We have to block the use of euphemisms when we talk about homosexuals,” he said. “They are not gay. We’ve got to use terms like ‘deviant’ and ‘abomination.’ “

“If we’re labeled as being fanatical Christians, we embrace it.”

“[Homosexuality is] ‘one of the greatest enemies of Christianity.’

The news today will only spur more homophobia in the very communities that need to open their eyes to the reality that AIDS is devastating them. It’s high-risk sexual practices, and most importantly, lies and denial, not orientation, that is going to allow this virus to spread.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding