ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - In the 17 years since he received his diagnosis, Lance Dauenbaugh’s blood has delivered oxygen to his cells; it has carried nutrients and hormones; it has done everything necessary to keep him alive, but with one potentially fatal flaw: It’s HIV positive.
When HIV was making headlines 30 years ago, Dauenbaugh’s case would have been unusual. Today, however, HIV has been turned from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition. And there are likely to be more and more long-term survivors after a new recommendation earlier this month from the World Health Organization, which encouraged all men who have sex with other men to take antiretroviral medications as a precaution, even if they are not HIV positive.
The WHO guidelines have sparked concerns among health professionals and activists who say that the medication may be unaffordable for some at-risk groups, that even minor dosage errors can compromise the drug’s effectiveness, and that those on the drug regimen might become complacent and engage in unprotected sex.
The recommendations also don’t erase the stigma of HIV, which is often transmitted through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.
Nevertheless, Dauenbaugh said he’s “one of the lucky ones.” His medications are working. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He enjoys gardening.
“I believe in trying to live a healthy lifestyle even if you do have an illness because your odds are a lot better,” he said.
Shelton Kay, director of Crusader Community Health’s HIV program, compared living with HIV to living with diabetes or hypertension. With proper monitoring and care, “you can be healthy and live a normal life,” Kay said.
Dauenbaugh contracted HIV in 1997, right around the same time that Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy was introduced. It was a major milestone in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
HIV is a retrovirus, so called because it inserts its own DNA into its host, with the result that a person who contracts HIV will have it for life. There is no cure. But antiretroviral medications are able to contain and suppress HIV.
Left untreated, HIV destroys infection-fighting blood cells. The final stage is full-blown AIDS, which makes the patient susceptible to bacterial and viral infections that those with healthy immune systems could overcome.
Despite the progress against the disease, an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even though they make up only 4 percent of the country’s population, men who engage in sexual activity with other men account for 63 percent of new HIV infections, the CDC reported.
Dauenbaugh, 58, is familiar with the toll taken by the virus. He moved back to Rockford last August after his longtime partner, Todd Files, died from complications arising from AIDS and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Files lived with HIV for 27 years. He was a floral designer who was confined to a wheelchair after an infection worked its way into his spine and paralyzed him from the waist down when he was in his 20s.
Before he became seriously ill, Files weighed about 160 pounds, Dauenbaugh said. By the time he died, he weighed 70.
Although AIDS played a role in File’s death, more and more people with HIV are living long enough to die from unrelated illnesses.