Are HIV positive people at greater risk of contracting COVID-19?

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Image by muhammad rizky klinsman from Pixabay
By Glenn Townes
Glenn.townes@njurbannews.com
 
Compared with the general population, people of color and those with compromised immune systems due to serious diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS—may be at a higher risk of developing COVID-19, according to details of a web conference on retroviruses and opportunistic infections in March from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

During the widely viewed webcast, John Brooks, a physician with the CDC said the risk of contracting COVID-19 is likely greater for HIV-positive people who have a low CD4 count or do not have full suppression of the HIV virus due to not adhering to a strict regimen of on antiviral meds. Brooks said ensuring a 30 to 60 day supply of medications, keeping up to date with flue, pneumonia and other vaccines and establishing an alternative—albeit virtual plan for clinical care during isolation is essential.

The HIV population continues to age with more than half of all diagnosed cases worldwide being 50 years or older, according to various world and national statistics. Coupled with an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that continues to target the diverse and mostly over 50 sect, dealing with the two maladies separately or jointly can be daunting and overwhelming.

“When you look at who's been most profoundly ill, it tend to be people who are older, in their 60s, 70s and 80s. As you get older, your immune system doesn't function as well,” says Steve Pergam, a physician at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Washington. In a recent interview, Pergam said people with a weakened immune system may be unable to fight off the COVID-19 virus and in some cases immune suppression may yield fewer or milder COVID-19 symptoms, such as a high fever and congestion. Yet , the virus quietly and consistently continues to ravage and destroys the lungs and respiratory systems. 

In New Jersey, more than 37,000 residents are living with HIV/AIDS, according to various statistics. The state ranks fourth in the country in the overall number of HIV/AIDS cases, with those individuals with low CD4 T-cell counts at the greatest risk for infection of coronavirus. Similarly, the state ranks second in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country with more than 130,000 cases and more than 

8,000 deaths.

“I don't worry about being at a greater risk of contracting coronavirus, even though I've been living with HIV/AIDS for more than 10 years,” said Vincent, a 50-year-old Hispanic man in North Brunswick, NJ. “I'm following the social distancing rules and 
wearing a mask when I do go out in public, but I haven't changed a lot of my other daily living habits or medical routines after the pandemic.”Vincent said his HIV medications and a healthy post HIV-positive living lifestyle has managed to keep his CD4-T-cell count at or above the normal range of between 500 and 1,500. 

Lastly, in initial preliminary clinical trials, at least one HIV medication, Kaletra,  had shown minimal promise in treating COVID-19, according to data from Chinese researchers in March. However, in further research and analysis medical experts in China and the U.S., dismissed the drug as being effective in combating coronavirus. However, in recent studies the antiviral drug Remdesivir has been lauded by scientists as being effective in the treatment of patients infected with COVID-19.

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