Medical breakthroughs loosen the grip of HIV

Visitors to Dubbo on World AIDS Day Paul Caleo and Dr Anna McNulty have spoken of the importance of diagnosis and treatment of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). 											Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

Visitors to Dubbo on World AIDS Day Paul Caleo and Dr Anna McNulty have spoken of the importance of diagnosis and treatment of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

IT'S NOT a miracle that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) can no longer be detected in the bloodstream of Dubbo visitor Paul Caleo.

Modern-day medication has significantly loosened its grip on the 57-year-old man who has a new lease on life.

His future has not always been bright.

When diagnosed with HIV in 1988, there were no drugs available to contain the virus that, when left untreated, can lead to the deadly Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

He watched the "downward spiral" of other people at a time when HIV was unknown and feared.

Hope accompanied the offer of drug treatment in the early 1990s.

But the early antiretroviral drugs were brutal on the fragile bodies of HIV patients, including Mr Caleo.

Side-effects included stomach problems, diarrhoea, in-grown toenails, kidney stones, tingling nerves and a condition that left a "buffalo hump" made of fat on his back.

It has been removed but not the memory of a long and determined effort to survive.

In 1995 Mr Caleo battled for his life after taking a break from the drugs that were ravaging his body.

"I came down with a type of pneumonia and became very, very ill," he said.

"I think I was 60 kilograms and basically there was nothing left of my immune system.

"It took me about six months to regain my health."

Mr Caleo does not complain about the rough start to his HIV journey.

"Because of the early drugs I'm still here, whereas a lot of people aren't," he said.

Nowadays, Western Sydney-based Mr Caleo is a director of Positive Life NSW, "the voice of people with HIV", and one of the HIV-positive Australians with an "undetectable viral load".

"What that means is that the medications are controlling the virus so much that it can't be detected by a blood test," he said.

"If you have an undetected viral load, there's almost a zero chance of onward transmission."

Mr Caleo reports that on the horizon for Australians at high risk of getting HIV is a preventative option called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP.

"For someone who is HIV-negative there's the option to go onto PrEP," he said.

"So the person who is negative takes the medication and if they are exposed to the virus, it is dealt with by the medication.

"It's another thing that will help end HIV for that particular group."

On Tuesday morning NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner announced a clinical trial to rapidly expand the availability of PrEP to about 3700 people at high risk of infection.

On the same day Mr Caleo travelled to Dubbo for a World AIDS Day event.

He spoke to more than 100 people at the screening of Holding the Man at Reading Cinemas.

Mr Caleo, whose late cousin John Caleo is depicted in the film, is a member of Positive Life NSW's Positive Speakers Bureau.

Bureau speakers share their personal stories and educate the wider community by delivering key prevention, education, harm-reduction and safer-sex messages.

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