For Yves Brunet, all advancements in medicine seemed to have failed. Since his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1986, the virus circulating his blood developed mutations that were unresponsive to the drugs on the market.
“My test was all red,” he says. “In other words, I was practically resistant to everything.”
Despite the ineffectiveness of treatment, the 48-year old experienced side-effects including lipodystrophy, a disorder where fat is redistributed in the body to create excess or lack of fat in various regions, and constant diarrhea.
In addition, in 2002, his eyes had deteriorated due to the virus, leaving him blind.
“It was five operations in the eyes, and each time it was supposed to be a minor operation and at the end they told me that they couldn’t do anything,” Brunet says. “It was just a series of losses.”
Brunet struggled back from the brink of death on three occasions. The last incident took place in 2006. This time, due to his resistance to existing treatment, Brunet gained access to a newly approved drug under brand name Prezista, and a second drug, Intelence, which was experimental at the time.
“Within six weeks I gained 15 pounds, which was a sign of good health,” he says.
What was even more striking to Brunet was that, 10 weeks into his new treatment, he had achieved undetectable viral load, or significantly reduced levels of HIV in the bloodstream.
“It was incredible news,” says Brunet, whose treatment now consists of Intelence, Prezista, and a combination of three other drugs. “The fact that Intelence is now being approved and distributed means that people that have failed a number of regiments now have certain options that they didn’t have before.”
Prezista was approved in Canada as of August 2006, and is covered under Trillium Advantage in Ontario. After priority review by Health Canada, Intelence was approved March 27, 2008, and is undergoing a Common Drug Review for provincial coverage.
Long-term side-effects remain unknown for either drug.
“Only a portion of the virus is circulating in the blood,” Brunet says. “A lot of it is in the tissues. They haven’t found a way to go into those places and [eradicate the virus fully].”
Despite advancement in medicine and increased awareness, Brunet does not believe that HIV/AIDS is under control in Canada. This is especially true in the gay community, he warns.
“There is a sense that HIV is not as critical now that people are not dying. Yet drugs have side effects, and they’re a bitch to take. People don’t seem to get that. Even though my viral load is undetectable, my immune system is still not normal. Having HIV is more than having to take pills. It changes one’s life. Protecting oneself [to avoid catching the virus] is very easy as opposed to living with it.”
Citing his struggle with HIV/AIDS, Brunet says that it is less a success story than an ongoing fight for his life.
“It’s been quite the road.”