Friday, March 16, 2012

The AIDS Alphabet: T is for T Cell and T Cell Count

The AIDS Alphabet: T is for T Cell and T Cell Count
For AIDS warrior and award-winning photographer Kurt Weston, T is also for Thomas Nyland (the subject of award-winning photograph "The Last Light") and Terry Roberts


T cells: Also called CD4 or T helper cells, T cells are part of the immune system cells. Their role is to recognize—and then coordinate attacks against—any foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
T cell count: T cell count [or sometimes T count] measures an individual’s immune system. It is calculated per unit of blood. A healthy person’s T cell count can vary but it’s usually approximately one thousand (to twelve hundred). 


One cannot talk about T Cell Count without also talking about Viral Load:

Viral Load (VL): Viral Load measures the amount of HIV in the patient’s blood. Two tests—T cell count and Viral Load—measure the evolution and the stage of the HIV infection in a patient’s body. A low T cell count and a high viral load determine an advanced stage or progression of the disease. HAART regimens can keep the viral load at an undetectable level and the T cell count close to the normal range.

AIDS patients have to test and monitor their T cell count and viral load on an ongoing basis. The lower the T cell count, the higher the viral load, and the more serious health problems (more advanced stages of AIDS). But, with the advent of HAART medications, AIDS patients and their physicians can better control the disease. Nowadays an undetectable VL is the norm, a 'norm' that cannot take it for granted, though. But right after the introduction of HAART treatment, AIDS patients still have a depressed immune system. Doctors had to put them on immunotherapies to help stimulate their immune system.

I'd like to offer you a peek into the immunotherapy experience and much more, as told to me by photographer Kurt Weston, during our interviews for Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Seven: Seeing the Future (Life Without Va)

Hope to see you on 3/24 at NYC Rainbow Book Fair! As always, thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald




The new HAART medications have saved Kurt Weston’s life. Bringing his immune system to a level that doctors considered “safe” was another story and required additional work, time, and treatments.  When he initially started taking Crixivan, Kurt’s immune system was virtually non-existent; therefore the medication, no matter how powerful, could not be as effective as doctors would have liked. They decided to try to boost Kurt’s immune system using immunotherapy—a treatment used to rebuild an individual’s impaired immune system, usually involving the administration of several cycles of immune system stimulants, called immunomodulators. 
    One example of an immunomodulator is Interleukin-2, a substance naturally produced by the body to stimulate its immunity. When the immune system is compromised and deteriorates below a certain level, like in the case of HIV/AIDS or cancer patients, the body cannot produce enough necessary Interleukin-2 and doctors can then intervene and administer a commercial version of the substance in order to boost the body’s immunity. For AIDS patients, Interleukin-2 has the potential to halt HIV progression by maintaining the T cell count in a normal range for prolonged periods of time. Interleukin-2 can also be used for cancer treatment, to prevent the reproduction of cancerous cells.
    For two consecutive years, between 1999 and 2000, Kurt Weston had to go through several Interleukin-2 cycles as part of his immunotherapy. During this time, the photographer received the medication several times a day, five days per cycle, every other month.
    The treatment was helpful and definitely necessary, because the stronger Kurt’s immune system was getting, the better the new HAART medications could help him regain his health and allow him to live an almost normal life. But the treatment also had severe side effects, similar to the ozone therapy ones, including a hundred and four degree fevers and rigors. And because of these side effects, by the second day on Interleukin-2, Kurt started feeling very sick. On the third day, he was holding on to dear life.