Doctors of Carnegie host HIV/AIDS symposium

Students gathered in Rangos last Thursday for the annual Doctors of Carnegie (DOCs) Health Symposium to discuss HIV/AIDS awareness. A diverse panel of specialists from the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force (PATF) came to share their experiences with HIV/AIDS outreach and education programs.

The first speaker was Clareece Jordan, a woman living with HIV. Jordan shared her story of contracting the disease at 16 from her only partner, after which her mother asked her to leave the house. Her experience spurred Jordan to seek out ways to help others living with HIV/AIDS. To this end, she is now on the board of the PATF. “I wanted to help the people that really mattered,” Jordan said. “I wanted to tell people what they really need.”

Helping people who live with HIV/AIDS is made difficult, beyond the health problems, because of the intense stigma, discrimination, ignorance, and shame attached to the disease. Dana Davis, a clinical social worker at the Positive Health Clinic, was particularly critical of media portrayal of HIV/AIDS. When Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers announced that he was living with HIV, Davis recalled the media’s concern for other players who would be sharing sweaty locker rooms and other facilities with him. Though HIV/AIDS cannot be spread through casual contact, such misinformation contributes to the “need for education and re-education,” Davis said.

Education about HIV/AIDS treatments was on the agenda for the evening. Dr. David Piontkowsky, an infectious diseases specialist working at the Positive Health Clinic, described antiretroviral therapies so effective that “in the past year [their clinic] has had no people die from HIV, with treatment.”

HIV is a tricky foe to develop a cure for due to its modus operandi in the body. HIV is a retrovirus, which means that it can copy and paste its own genetic material into a host’s genome. Thus, the host unwittingly begins to manufacture the HIV proteins that destroy cells of the body’s immune system. An infected person easily falls prey to diseases like pneumonia, which, though curable in a healthy person, are potentially fatal for people with weak immune systems.

However, there are several treatments on the market that keep HIV under control. Some work to prevent membrane fusion between the virus and host cells. In this way, the HIV viral genome has no opportunity to make DNA from its RNA. Other drugs substitute fake nucleotides, the building blocks for DNA and RNA, for real ones so that no functional viral proteins can be made.

Antiretroviral drugs are effective when taken regularly. The treatments require only two pills per day, but Piontkowsky pointed out that the problem is no longer about obtaining or paying for pills, but “getting people on meds and having them take them.” Missing even one pill per month could cause a patient’s infection to become drug-resistant.

New treatments could go a long way toward bringing the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control, but it will not be an easy task. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. Worldwide, that number climbs to a staggering 40 million and counting. The number of newly infected individuals rises every day, as does the number of deaths from the disease. However, the numbers say nothing about those who live with HIV/AIDS indirectly, through family or friends, nor do they represent those who are ostracized for seeking testing or treatment.

Subhashini Katumuluwa, a senior biological sciences major and vice president of special events for DOCs, organized the symposium to promote education and dialogue about HIV/AIDS and the dangers of ignorance and misinformation. “I think a lot of people our age assume that they will never come into contact with a person with AIDS, and educating themselves about the disease is just not a priority for them right now,” Katumuluwa said. “And so these speakers, along with millions of others around the world, are helping to educate people one small group at a time. I’m glad we were able to be one of those small groups.”