Doctors: Johnson’s HIV is at undetectable levels but he’s not virus-free
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Powerful drugs have reduced the AIDS virus in Magic Johnson’s body to undetectable levels but the basketball star isn’t cured, his doctors said Friday.
``Earvin is doing very well,″ Dr. David Ho and Dr. Michael Mellman, physicians for Johnson, said in a joint statement.
``However, we must emphasize that `undetectable’ doesn’t equal `absent.′ It would be premature and incorrect to say Earvin is `virus free.′ We are very pleased he has adhered to his daily drug regimen and that is reflected in his good health.″
``His viral activity is infinitesimal,″ Johnson agent Lon Rosen said. But he acknowledged that did not mean the virus was gone.
In an interview Friday night Johnson said he believes his good health since contracting is a result of prayers by friends and family and his own faith in God.
``If it wasn’t for the Lord’s blessing, I wouldn’t be as healthy as I am now,″ Johnson told KCBS-TV.
Johnson said he prayed nightly for good health, and that others are praying for him as well.
Johnson’s comments were in response to his wife’s comments to a magazine that she believes low viral activity in Johnson’s bloodstream means he has been healed by God.
``This is the first time we’ve ever said anything about the viral activity within my own system,″ he said.
``... So when she came out and said, because there’s no viral activity within my body, she feels, and we both believe, that we’ve been healed, by our faith in God and by his blessing,″ Johnson said during a break in a practice with his touring basketball team.
Johnson, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 to 1992, disclosed in November 1991 that he was HIV-positive. He coached the team for the final 16 games of the 1993-94 season and came out of retirement to play the second half of last season before retiring for good. He now owns a small portion of the Lakers.
At 37, Johnson maintains a strenuous exercise program and plays basketball with the Magic Johnson All-Stars, a touring team that competes in exhibition games, mostly in Europe.
Johnson was not taking calls about his condition, Rosen said.
Just as Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive catapulted the issue of AIDS into mainstream social discussions, activists hope that his progress encourages people to get tested and take advantage of improved treatments.
Thousands of HIV patients also have seen their infections recede to undetectable levels after taking drugs called protease inhibitors, approved last year by the Food and Drug Administration.
``I speak on behalf of David Ho when I say one of the drugs in the combination (used by Johnson) is a protease inhibitor. I cannot saying anything beyond that,″ Ho’s brother and spokesman, Sidney Ho, confirmed Friday.
``My concern is that people are going to think that Magic Johnson is the only person this is happening to ... that he’s cured ... that there’s a cure for AIDS, therefore, I don’t have to worry about being infected,″ Lee Klosinski, director of education at AIDS Project Los Angeles, said.
A patient with undetectable virus levels can still infect others and even if the virus is undetected in blood or semen, it can be present in other areas such as the intestines.
``I hope people get the message about how important treatment is,″ Klosinski said.
Protease inhibitors reduce illnesses in infected patients. The drugs are taken with at least two other AIDS drugs on a strict schedule. The regimen sometimes requires meticulous timing _ some drugs must be taken an hour before eating or two hours after. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, headaches, backaches and gastrointestinal problems.
As many as 40 percent of patients who take the potent ``cocktail″ of drugs eventually develop a resistance, either because the virus becomes resistant after years on other AIDS drugs, or because patients don’t or are unable to take the drugs as ordered. The drugs are expensive, costing between $12,000 and $15,000 a year.
Nearly 90 percent of the people who take the powerful drugs within a few months of being diagnosed HIV-positive have undetectable levels similar to Johnson’s condition, said Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, a lead AIDS researcher at Cornell Medical Center and scientific consultant to the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
``People are living longer, but we’re measuring it in months,″ Laurence said.
The basketball star’s wife insists it was God who intervened.
``The Lord has definitely healed Earvin,″ Cookie Johnson told Ebony magazine in an interview published this month. Doctors ``think it’s the medicine. We claim it in the name of Jesus,″ Cookie Johnson said.
``I honestly feel that the Lord is going to heal him and that we are going to live together forever and have more children and be happy.″