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December is World Aids Month and an apt time to celebrate innovations that allow HIV/Aids positive individuals to live a long and fulfilling life. While 19% of the global population living with HIV (the largest HIV epidemic in the world) resides in South Africa, the country is also home to the globe’s biggest treatment programme, putting us at the forefront of global advancements.

Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says that we’re closer to a cure for HIV than ever before. “With innovations like Crispr/Cas9 gene editing that allow scientists to successfully ‘clip’ away the virus from cell DNA in mice, a world without Aids may soon be in sight,” says Morkel.

She adds that the world has collectively been working together to not only find a cure for HIV/Aids, but also to ensure that people living with the virus have as normal and fulfilling a life as possible.

Below are some of the pivotal advancements helping HIV/Aids positive people to live normal lives:

  1. Advanced treatments: Treatment is the biggest reason for improved longevity and quality of life. For example, a new deal between UNAIDS and SA (announced in September 2017) caps prices for one of the best HIV pills on the market at $75 per person, per year (R1032.75 at the time of writing). Anticipated to catalyse competitive prices, this pill is also more effective, with fewer side effects.
    • There are three main ways treatments have improved:
    • A change in policy has seen ARTs being administrated upon a positive diagnosis, rather than waiting for a fall in CD4 count. Earlier treatment means the body’s immune system stays healthier and at normal levels for longer. The risk of passing the virus on to others is dramatically reduced.
    • Treatment has reduced side-effects. Now it’s just one tablet once a day, with all the active ingredients necessary to target different areas of the virus’s life cycle.
    • It’s more affordable as competition keeps prices in check. Government and the World Health Organisation’s commitments also aim to alleviate the financial constraints that could potentially prevent treatment.
  2. Enabling apps: Apps like Care4Today and iStayHealthy remind people to take medications. They also allow medical staff to keep track of patients in remote areas. Additionally, they can be linked to rapid testing devices to show CD4 count and viral load status over the long term. This makes them a valuable resource for research. Gamification is likely to increase with insurers and clinicians partnering to reward consistent treatment compliance.
  3. Insuring security: While most HIV positive patients would find it difficult to get cover a decade ago, today almost all insurers offer cover to HIV positive individuals. Sanlam was the first large insurer in South Africa to offer HIV positive individuals standard life cover that’s offered to HIV negative individuals as well. Doctors and actuaries in the insurance industry work closely with HIV clinicians to identify trends in patients’ financial needs, along with the outcome of good medical management and then calculate the risks in the same way as they do for other chronic disorders. This means HIV has the same medical loading (the adjustment in premiums for individuals with higher risk profiles)) as any other well controlled chronic disease. By having life cover and living benefits (e.g. disability cover), people with HIV have greater financial security and the opportunity to conclude other financial transactions – like taking out a home loan, for example.
  4. More educated mind-sets: There’s far less shaming, stigma and negativity associated with HIV/Aids, predominantly due to education, a global effort to control the epidemic, legislation that protects the rights of HIV positive individuals as well as support from religious, cultural and human rights groups. Combatting the harmful stigma means less shame and increased acceptance and support.

Dr Morkel says, “Healthy mind, healthy body. The key to remaining healthy and in control of any chronic illness is a committed and positive outlook. In a more optimistic environment with support rather than stigmas, access to treatment, and plenty of technological tools to foster greater control over the condition, people with HIV/ Aids can live a long and rich life.”

Sanlam Life Insurance is a licensed financial service provider.
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