AIDS - Treatment

Treatment for AIDS involves the following:

  • Prophylactic Treatment for Opportunistic Infections. Prophylactic (pronounced pro-fuh-LAK-tik) treatment is treatment given to prevent disease. Certain symptoms, such as persistent weight loss, low white blood cell counts, and the presence of thrush, are used to determine when prophylactic treatments should be given. Three drugs used in treatment are trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (pronounced tri-METH-o-prim SULL-fuhmeth-OCK-suh-zole), dapsone, and pentamidine (pronounced pen-TAM-uh-deen).

AZT shown at 25-times enlargement. (Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos)
AZT shown at 25-times enlargement. (Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos

  • Treatment of Opportunistic Infections and Cancers. These treatments are often made more difficult because the organisms that cause the diseases may become resistant to the usual drugs used to kill them. In such cases, doctors have to look for other drugs with which to treat the infections. Both radiation therapy and chemotherapy (pronounced kee-mo-THAIR-uh-pee) can be used to treat some types of infections and forms of cancer.
  • Anti-retroviral Treatment. Anti-retroviral treatments make use of drugs that attack and destroy the virus itself rather than treating the infections and diseases it causes. The first successful drugs of this kind were nucleoside analogues. A nucleoside analogue is a chemical that interferes when the virus tries to make copies of itself inside cells. If the virus cannot reproduce in cells, it cannot continue to damage white blood cells. The best known of these drugs is zidovudine (pronounced zie-DOE-vyoo-deen), sometimes called azidothymidine (pronounced AZE-ih-do-thi-mih-deen) or AZT.

One of the most serious problems in developing treatments for AIDS is that HIV mutates (changes) rapidly. In a short period of time, it can become resistant to drugs that could once kill it. As those drugs become ineffective against the disease, new ones must be found to replace them.

In 1997, the first of a new class of drugs was approved for use with AIDS patients. This class of drugs is the protease inhibitors and includes saquinavir (pronounced suh-KWIN-uh-ver). The protease inhibitors are now used by themselves or in combination with nucleoside analogues to kill the virus.

Stimulation of Blood Cell Production

Many AIDS patients have very low levels of white and red blood cells. People with low red blood cell counts often suffer from anemia (see anemia entry), a condition that causes weakness, exhaustion, and generally poor health. People with low white blood cell counts are unable to fight off infections. To protect AIDS patients against these conditions, drugs may be given to stimulate the production of both red and white blood cells.

Alternative Treatment

For many years, doctors were able to offer AIDS patients little assistance in treating their disease. As a result, patients became very interested in alternative forms of treatment. Among those treatments were a variety of Chinese and Western herbal medicines and specialized diets designed to strengthen the immune system. Patients also tried nonphysical methods, such as visualization. In visualization, a person tries to imagine what a virus looks like and what kind of battle is going on in his or her body. By this method, the person believes that he or she may have some control over that battle.

Patients have tried a variety of pain control techniques as well. These have included hydrotherapy (the use of water baths and treatments), acupuncture (a Chinese therapy technique where fine needles puncture the body), meditation, and chiropractic (pronounced KIRE-uh-prak-tik; therapy that involves manipulation of the spine).

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