What it’s like to take antiretroviral therapy, how many pills are needed and why taking them regularly and consistently is so important.
When Appeal Court Judge Edwin Cameron started taking antiretroviral drugs in November 1997, they were ‘horrifically expensive, difficult to take and narrow in scope’, he says.
One of the three drugs he took each day, a protease inhibitor called Norvir, had ‘vile side-effects’, and consisted of a daily dose of 12 pills that had to be kept chilled at all times.
‘But,’ says Cameron, ‘the drugs clearly saved my life. My immune system had all but collapsed. I had PCP (a kind of pneumonia) in both lungs, systemic thrush and had lost 10% of my body weight.
‘Within two weeks of taking the drugs, I could feel a miracle happening within my body. I felt the virus abate, and my appetite and vital forces returned. Within four weeks, I managed to climb Table Mountain.’
Today, the development of new drugs means that taking ARVs has become ‘a chronic disease that is a lot easier to control than insulin-dependent diabetes,’ he says.
Cameron is now on two drugs, Combivir (a combination of drugs 3TC and AZT) and nevirapine. He takes two tablets twice a day and drinks lots of water with each dose.
‘This is one of the easiest regimens to take. The tablets are small and can be taken on a full or empty stomach.
‘On one level, taking the drugs is just part of your life. But on another level, there is drug-taking fatigue. You do think sometimes ‘is this what I have to do for the rest of my life?’ But I have managed to keep going. You can miss one or two doses a month. If you miss more than that, you are in trouble.
‘I have remained completely healthy for the past six years and live a full and productive life, which I owe to the drugs, a supportive and loving environment and the first rate medical supervision of my doctor, Dr Dave Johnson.’