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The dangers of skipping your ARVS treatment

By Faeza
12 August 2016

There was a time when a person who was diagnosed with HIV or Aids received a virtual death sentence, as there were no known treatments for the disease. However, in the late 1990s, a combination of drugs was discovered that kept the virus in check. These were called antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Since 2004, when South Africa rolled out its ARV programme to people living with HIV, they have given affected people a new lease on life.

IT’S A TREATMENT, NOT A CURE

ARV treatments do not cure HIV/Aids. There is still no outright cure for the disease, and it does not go away by itself. But ARVs do slow down the damage that the virus does to the immune system, and allow people to live long, productive lives like everyone else, without succumbing to the disease. With one in every 10 people in South Africa living with HIV or Aids – that is, 6.19 million in 2015 – these drugs are tremendously valuable in giving an excellent quality of life.

STOPPING TREATMENT

The downside of this is that many HIV patients feel so good when they are on ARVs that they stop taking their medication, in the mistaken belief that they are cured, or that they don’t need them any more as their condition has stabilised. Nothing could be further from the truth. They may also stop treatment if they suffer unpleasant side effects, such as headache, dizziness or nausea, though these usually pass after a few weeks.

If they don’t, the doctor will prescribe a different regimen. But it is very important, if you have started on ARV treatment, to continue taking it faithfully in order for it to work. If you are pregnant, or are a breastfeeding mother, you can safely take ARVs, and should do so to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Ask advice from your doctor or clinic about the correct medication for you.

WHY MUST YOU TAKE ARVS?

ARVs are drugs for life. This means that they give you back a good quality of life if you are living with HIV, but you have to take them for the rest of your life. The purpose of ARVs is to reduce the HI virus in the blood to the point where the immune system, which is affected by HIV, can start to recover and the virus stops making copies of itself in the body.

THE DANGERS OF SKIPPING ARV TREATMENT

If you have HIV and you stop taking the ARV treatment, the following can happen:

¦ Your strain of HIV may become resistant to the ARVs, so even if you decide to take them again at a later stage, they might not work.

¦ If the drugs are stopped, or not taken at the right time each day, the HIV takes advantage of this and starts to make copies of itself again. Sometimes the copies change a little bit, and the ARV drugs will not be as effective against them.

¦ If HIV becomes drug resistant, and you accidentally pass the virus on to another person, that person will find that drugs do not work for them either. For these reasons, it is vital not only to take your medication faithfully, but also to comply with the instructions exactly. So if you must take it twice a day, you should take it at the same time every day – say, at 7am, then again 12 hours later at 7pm. This is to keep the drugs in your body at a constant level in order to fight the virus. The same applies if you are on one of the newer combinations of drugs that have to be taken once a day.

REMEMBERING TO TAKE ARVS

Because it is so important that you take your treatment correctly, you might find it helpful to find ways of reminding yourself to do this, such as:

¦ Set your alarm clock or cellphone timer to ring just before your next dose is due, so that you don’t forget to take it.

¦ Keep your medication in the same place all the time, so you know where to find it – but be sure that it is out of reach of children. Stick a note somewhere you will see it, such as your bathroom mirror or your kitchen cupboard, to remind you to take it.

¦ Don’t wait until your medication has run out before you go and get a new supply.

CAN YOU PASS ON HIV WHEN ON ARVS?

ARVs help to keep you healthy by fighting HIV and controlling the levels of it in the body, but there is no guarantee that you can’t still transmit the virus to sexual partners, people with whom you share needles, and your baby. Thus, it’s best to follow the doctor’s advice.

LIVING A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

Along with medication, you need to adopt good lifestyle habits such as:

EATING WELL: You need a balanced diet when taking ARVs. Replace junk food with protein (meat, fish, eggs and nuts); carbohydrates (pap, bread, rice and potatoes); and fruit and vegetables. Good food helps stop some of the side effects of ARVs, like nausea and diarrhoea. Do not take traditional muthi or over-the-counter vitamin supplements without talking to your clinic sister or chemist first, as some don’t go well with ARVs.

EXERCISING: It improves blood circulation, increases energy levels, lowers stress levels, helps maintain a healthy body weight, and assists with getting a good night’s sleep.

SLEEPING WELL: People living with HIV may have trouble sleeping and get depressed. This affects the body’s ability to fight infection and puts you at risk of contracting some of the complications of HIV.

PRACTISE SAFE SEX: You should tell a new partner your status before you have sex. If you don’t, you expose them to HIV and other STIs.