American, Howard Armistead was infected with HIV in 1983 when the world hardly knew what it was. His diagnosis two years later came just a year before Botswana’s David Ngele became the first Motswana to be diagnosed with the deadly virus in 1986. For countries like Botswana, until early 2000s a positive diagnosis meant a death sentence. Many a life has been lost here in Botswana since the first case of HIV/AIDS was recorded.
But that was before the introduction of Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). When Armistead (Los Angeles, California) got sick in ’83 there was no test for the virus at least until two years later in 1985. “For a week following infection I was sick as a dog,” Armistead tells Sunday Standard Lifestyle. “I was extremely ill, lying helplessly in bed for a week without energy, and with a high temperature. It was like double flu.”
The 65 year old American says he had never been that sick in his entire life. A few months later Armistead came across a newspaper article calling for volunteers for this new virus at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Desperate after witnessing other people die from the virus Armistead volunteered for the study. The study was part of the Multi-centred Aids Cohort Study (MACS), about how the HIV virus is transmitted from one person to another and its progress through the body. Although infected in 1983 it was not until 1985 when a test for HIV was introduced that Armistead’s blood (collected in 1984 when he joined the study) tested positive for the virus.
But he would only start taking ARVs in 1989 after his CD4 count dropped dramatically. He says although helpful the first ARVs were not as effective. It was only until 1997 when he started taking protease inhibitor ARVs that his immune system started to show significant improvement. “But only to a certain degree,” Armistead insists. His most significant improvement in CD4 count came when he started taking selenium nutritional supplement in 1999. “Selenium doubled the effects of ARVs,” Armistead tells Sunday Standard Lifestyle. “While ARVs brought my immune system back up Selenium brought it back to normal.”
A 2013 study co-authored by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) suggested that a special multivitamin preparation that includes selenium can significantly slow the progression to ill health or death in people living with HIV. According to HSPH, in a randomized controlled study conducted between 2004 and 2009 here in Botswana, the researchers divided 878 HIV-infected adults, who had never received ART, into four groups. Individuals in each group were given a multivitamin alone, selenium alone, a combination of multivitamins plus selenium, or a placebo. “The results showed that those who took daily multivitamins with selenium had a roughly 50% reduced risk of progressing to either ill health or death due to AIDS over a 24-month period. The people in this group were also much more likely to have higher CD4 countsÔÇöa sign of a healthier immune system,” the study said.
Howard Armistead, who was here in Botswana to share his selenium experience, and expertise with relevant stakeholders in the fight against HIV/AIDS, emphasizes that while selenium is highly effective in slowing the progression of the virus in the body it should not be misconstrued to be a replacement for ARVs.
“You can continue with your ARVs but you would also want to add a dose of selenium to the cocktail. Selenium is the only immune booster recommended by doctors worldwide to take with ARS and is the only vitamin/mineral proven to slow down HIV infection.” The American, now based in Johannesburg (SA), has been living in Africa for more than a decade, going back to the US at least once a year to have his blood taken and examined for the MACS.
MACS participants are seen every three to six months and undergo a brief physical and mental status examination. In addition, they must donate blood and complete a long questionnaire regarding demographic factors, habits, disease history, and past and present sexual activities. Armistead says through his participation in the MACS study he became a researcher. “When you have HIV you want the best treatment available.” His curiosity and research on the virus has seen him attend AIDS conferences around the world as well as studying virology and immunology in his quest to learn all he could share as much as he could about HIV/AIDS. Selenium: a trace element that is naturally present in many foods, and available as a dietary supplement. Selenium, which is nutritionally essential for humans, is a constituent of more than two dozen selenoproteins that play critical roles in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage and infection.