HealthStacy M. Brown

Thirty Years After Magic Johnson’s HIV Diagnosis, Medical Science Finds Reasons for Optimism

In an announcement that not only shocked the sports world but reverberated globally, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson announced 30 years ago that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

On a dreary November morning in 1991, Johnson and the Lakers held a press conference at the Forum in Inglewood, California, to announce his retirement.

“I have to battle this deadly disease,” the five-time NBA champion declared before an international pool of reporters and photographers.

In the still-early stages of the public – and medical science’s – understanding of HIV and AIDS, most believed the end of Johnson’s life had approached.

Now at age 62 and three decades removed from that gut-punch of a revelation, Johnson remains not only healthy but has established himself as one of the world’s most successful businessmen and an ambassador for HIV/AIDS.

“God has really blessed me! Today marks 30 years living with HIV, so the message resonated with me in such a tremendous way,” the three-time NBA MVP tweeted.

“I thank the Lord for keeping me, giving me strength and guiding me for 62 years but especially the last 30,” he said.

With a focus on COVID-19, recent advances in the treatment of HIV have largely gone unnoticed.

“The past year has provided the opportunity for reflection and one thing that’s become clear to me is how essential media coverage of COVID-19 has been in educating people around the world about the virus, its impact and what can be done to slow the spread of transmission,” stated Dr. Kimberly Smith, the head of external affairs and Communications for ViiV Healthcare.

The company dedicates its work to HIV medicines and research and focuses entirely on individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.

“While the media has done an excellent job with COVID-19, their focus has waned on another global epidemic that is still raging – HIV,” Dr. Smith said. “Despite over a year of lockdowns and social distancing, we see cases of HIV and other STDs increase and that’s alarming. Before these cases spiral out of control, we need the media to re-engage and help put HIV back in the public eye.”

Dr. Smith noted that the HIV epidemic has dramatically changed over the past 40 years. Individuals living with the disease look different from the images that dominated the media in the 1980s and 1990s.

“However, without an accurate representation of people living with HIV today by the media, stigma about HIV persists,” Dr. Smith insisted.

“For that reason, it’s crucial the public see what people successfully managing their HIV look like today, leading active, healthy lives. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of people living with HIV say that they’ve experienced some form of stigma in the last 12 months. Stigma not only affects mental, physical and emotional health, it prevents people from seeking care and getting on treatment,” she said.

D’Vaughn House, a research coordinator at the University of Cincinnati Infectious Diseases Center, noted that HIV advancements have not stopped because of COVID-19.

“We have been so busy that we had to open up a new space for our clinical trials. At the university, our research unit was the very few units to remain open during campus-wide furloughs,” House remarked.

“We are currently working on HIV cure studies with companies like AbbVie and Gilead. We also have several HIV treatments studies to decrease the amount of HIV in a healthy person’s body. Lastly, Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, our principal investigator, is using CRISPR to modify immune cells to help patients fight HIV naturally genetically,” House said.

The primary treatment of HIV/AIDS remains antiretroviral (ARV) medication which suppresses the virus and slows its progression in the body, offered Dr. Rudolf Probst, who specializes in immunology, gynecology, internal medicine, and surgery.

“If the ARV is successful, it can add many healthy years and reduce the risk of transmission to others,” Dr. Probst wrote in an email.

ARVs come in different forms: protease inhibitors, nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, entry inhibitors and integrase strand transfer inhibitors.

“Since HIV can mutate and become resistant to a single medication, most healthcare professionals prescribe several HIV medications together,” Dr. Probst added.

“In 1995, a combination of two or more ARVs was introduced to people with HIV/AIDS. This powerful therapy saw the reduction of death from HIV/AIDS drop drastically in 1996 and 1997. Each year new therapies are gaining more ground in treating and possibly curing HIV,” he said.

Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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