Here comes summer, which to many means the beach, the pool, barbecues and, of course, cocktails. Lots of cocktails.
So when I learned a recent study found alcohol consumption can lead to more instances of HIV infections, I thought, “Duh? Of course, these go together. Summertime and cocktails, sex and alcohol.
There is a reason why Prohibition failed: Alcohol is a part of our lives, directly or indirectly. People love to drink and some love to drink a lot, and do so for many reasons — to relax, to get high and to have fun. Or all three.
Researchers are trying to understand the complicated marriage between alcohol and HIV. One link comes from alcohol’s effect of loosening inhibitions, such as neglecting to take precautions when having sex. And then the virus spreads.
Studies also suggest people living with HIV are twice as likely to use alcohol as those who aren’t HIV positive. In fact, one study reports almost half of adults living with HIV have histories of alcohol-related problems.
Researchers also learned patients living with HIV are aware that drinking alcohol while taking HIV medications can be harmful. With alcohol abuse, the side effects can be serious, even leading to death. Thus, some people living with HIV don’t take their medications when they’re drinking.
One study showed that of people living with HIV and on AIDS-related treatment, more than half didn’t take their HIV medications when drinking, even though HIV medications must be taken daily to ensure suppression of the virus. Skipping scheduled dosages can lead to drug resistance and heavy drinking can lead to liver disease. In HIV-positive patients, a healthy liver is especially important as it helps maximize the effect of HIV medications in the body.
It has been drilled into the general population that certain medications are harmful when taken with alcohol. It appears that is the main reason why many people living with HIV stop taking their medications when they drink alcohol. Also, they often forget to take their medications after drinking.
So what about alcohol and AIDS around the world? It’s a serious problem in most cultures. Of the more than 34 million people globally living with HIV, two-thirds are in sub-Saharan Africa. In this region, the annual consumption of alcohol per drinker is higher than anywhere else. In fact, some countries consider AIDS and alcohol consumption a twin epidemic.
Having traveled throughout the African bush, I can tell you drinking alcohol is ingrained in most cultures.
Countries with heavy HIV infection rates and high alcohol consumption seem unaware of alcohol’s negative effects on HIV prevention and treatment efforts. In both the United States and elsewhere, not much research focuses on the link between alcohol and HIV.
We need to have an open and honest discussion about alcohol and HIV. AIDS and LGBT organizations around the world need to work closely with such drinking establishments as bars and nightclubs to develop effective outreach campaigns that focus on awareness and changing behaviors. Increased awareness of the link between alcohol and HIV could help slow the spread of the disease and save the lives of many living with HIV.
Already some drinking establishments permit LGBT groups to distribute condoms. Why not expand that joint effort to include efforts to raise awareness of alcohol’s damaging effects on HIV-positive people? But without judgment and focus more on support.