At the Thomas Street Health Center north of downtown Houston, patients and staff members at Harris Health decorated what looks like a Christmas tree in the lobby.
The "tree of remembrance," was erected to honor World AIDS Day on Tuesday. Most of the colored ornaments are scribbled in black marker. Many have the names and the year that someone died of AIDS.
"We have to remember it," said Dr. Ben Barnett, the associate medical director of HIV Services at Harris Health, which runs the Thomas Street clinic.
Barnett, who addressed a small crowd, was highlighting the links between his own specialty, hepatitis C, and HIV.
He calls hepatitis C: "an epidemic within the epidemic of HIV." The doctor went on to explain:
"Hepatitis C is transmitted in exactly the same ways as HIV is," Barnett said. "Therefore many of our patients with HIV infection are also infected with hepatitis C virus, about one in five."
But there's a cure for hepatitis C – a new class of drugs can eliminate most cases in about three months, said Barnett, who focuses on eliminating hepatitis C in HIV patients.
That helps them live longer, but he also stressed that his clinical work contains valuable lessons for the future, when an HIV cure is finally found.
Barnett predicted that just like current hepatitis C patients, HIV patients of the future will have to take one or more pills a day – or maybe injections – and be absolutely consistent about it for many months before they're cured.
Aside from the pharmacology, success will hinge on patient compliance and physician advocacy.
"People often ask me: ‘Why do you flip out so much?'" Barnett said. "Why do you flip out so much when a patient misses their medicine, or this prior authorization doesn't go through, or this refill was misplaced, or whatever?
The doctor answers his own question.
“And it's because I really think this cure of hepatitis C is actually dress rehearsal, so to speak, for the cure of HIV," Barnett said.
In the meantime, hepatitis C remains a formidable disease, killing more Americans overall than HIV.