The Science Behind HIV/AIDS

Being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS 20 years ago would have been a death sentence. 

This was the case for HIV/AIDS survivor Jessica Warren, who was diagnosed when she was 19 years old. However, 23 years later, Warren still lives with HIV, and she is a proud mother of an HIV negative son as well as a fierce advocate for those living with the virus.

Warren was a guest speaker who gave a presentation titled, “The Science Behind HIV/AIDS,” with a Biochemistry II class on March 11. 

One important aim of the presentation was to explain the basic scientific structure of HIV/AIDS and to provide an overview of the medical progress made toward helping those diagnosed with the disease. 

The disease begins simply as HIV. The human immunodeficiency virus is spread through bodily fluid contact, mainly sexual intercourse or infected blood. However, HIV is different from the common cold virus because it destroys a major part of the body’s immune system, called the CD4+ T cells. Once the number of CD4+ T cells drops below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, HIV becomes AIDS.

No cure has been discovered for HIV/AIDS. This is because the virus is prone to frequent mutations, which has made it extremely difficult for medical professionals to develop a treatment able to consistently combat it.

Illustration by Lo Wall

It is no doubt that HIV/AIDS has become a global issue. The Biochemistry II students explained that the HIV/AIDS epidemic began on June 5, 1981, when the Center for Disease Control discovered low blood counts in four gay men who were previously healthy. Within the next month, 26 gay men in California and New York reported similar symptoms, according to the CDC.

By 1985, the virus became the leading cause of death among 18–25 year olds. It wasn’t until 2003 that the George W. Bush administration prioritized medical research of HIV/AIDS and founded the President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Since its founding, PEPFAR has devoted over $30 billion towards medical care and treatment for patients both in the U.S. and in Africa. Additionally, there have been 2.2 million babies born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers, according to pepfar.gov. 

Near the end of the presentation, the Biochemistry II students invited Colorado College alumnus Melissa Chizmar ’15 to speak about the current medical approaches toward combatting HIV/AIDS. Chizmar, the Prevention Coordinator at Southern Colorado Health Network, spoke about her services in providing a medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

PrEP combines two HIV medications, tenofovir and emtricitabine, and is administered to individuals at high-risk for HIV. Chizmar drew a connection between PrEP and birth control. Like birth control, if an individual at high risk for HIV takes PrEP daily, their chances for contracting the disease will be significantly lowered. Even so, it is important to note that PrEP does not cure HIV/AIDS — it simply decreases a person’s risk for contracting the virus.

After Chizmar, the Biochemistry II students invited Jessica Warren up to the podium to speak. 

“I hope for the day that we will [have a cure],” Warren said. “[To] sit down and tell our grandchildren, ‘I’ve made it. I’ve survived.’ I thank you all for believing in me. Let’s fight this together.” 

Ellen Loucks

Ellen Loucks

Ellen Loucks, class of 2021, is majoring in the humanities. She is from Champaign, IL, and is passionate about delivering authentic and reliable news to readers. She intends to pursue a career in writing following college.

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