Because of the media hype that surrounds it and the devastating effects it has on both individuals and large populations, many people have heard of the term “HIV or AIDS” at some point in their lives. Usually the terms stir up fear in an individual, partly because they know that it is a fatal disease, and partly because there is a misunderstanding as to how you can contract it.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Every person has an immune system in their body which fights infection and disease. For someone with HIV, the virus locates certain crucial immune system white blood cells called T-cells or CD-4 cells, and destroys them. Thus, an HIV infected person ultimately ends up with a compromised immune system that is unable to ward off illnesses, bacteria, viruses, and diseases. When the body reaches the point where it cannot fight off these pathogens, the person is considered to have AIDS. It usually takes about 10-15 years from the time of HIV infection until full blown AIDS, although antiretroviral drugs can prolong the process.
Pathology: HIV does not live well outside of the body. Instead, it lives in vaginal secretions, semen, and blood. Therefore, you WILL NOT get HIV through basic contact activities (hugging, shaking hands, toilet seats, doorknobs, casual kissing, etc) or through mosquito bites. HIV is mostly transmitted in the following ways:
- Having sex (anal, vaginal, oral) with someone infected with HIV. HIV lives in the blood, semen, and vaginal secretions, so if any of these get in your body from a sexual partner, you can get HIV. You can also get it from sharing sexual devices that have been used without a condom or without being disinfected first.
- Sharing needles and syringes with someone infected with HIV
- Being exposed to HIV before or during birth or during breastfeeding
Symptoms: In the initial stages after infection, there are no symptoms. In fact, you can remain symptom free for up to 10 years or more. As it continues to affect your body, some or all of the following symptoms may become present:
- Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection
- Weight loss
- Cough and shortness of breath
Once HIV can be diagnosed as AIDS (by either a CD4 cell count of 200 or less or becoming infected by a certain disease, like pneumonia), the following symptoms may be present:
- Soaking night sweats
- Shaking chills or fever higher than 100 F for several weeks
- Dry cough and shortness of breath
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
- Blurred and distorted vision
- Weight loss
Treatment: There is NO cure for HIV. If infected, some people can take antiretroviral drugs that delay the progress of the virus in the body. For those who are health care workers that accidentally get stuck with an HIV-infected needle, there is a prophylaxis that could prevent transmission. Otherwise, treatments generally concern whatever opportunistic infection one develops while infected with HIV- often times pneumonia or tuberculosis.
Prevention: (Taken from Prevent-HIV.com)
Preventing the sexual transmission of HIV.
• Abstinence from sexual relations is the surest way to prevent the sexual spread of STDs like HIV.
• Get tested and share your STD status with your partner before having sex. Then practice safer sex techniques to prevent infection.
• Use a new latex barrier (a male condom, female condom, or dental dam) at each vaginal, anal, or oral sex encounter.
• Use a water-based lubricants with condoms. Do not use baby oil or other oil-based lubricants such as Vaseline. These may cause holes to form in the condom, causing it to break.
• Products containing the spermicide nonoxyono-9 (found in most contraceptive creams, gels, suppositories, foams, films and sponges) help to prevent pregnancy but may increase the risk of HIV.
• Never share sex toys.
• Engaging in a committed, monogamous relationship with a person who is free from HIV or any other STD is safer if you both mutually agree to agree to refrain from any high-risk behaviors.
• Be aware of cultural and social norms that may weaken your ability to negotiate with sex partners for safer sex.
Preventing the transmissions of HIV through needle and blood contact
• Always use new sterile equipment and supplies. Don’t share or reuse any piercing tattooing, or injection needles.
• Using needles cleaned with bleach or that have been heated is not as safe as using new, sterile needles.
• Don’t share drug supplies. Make sure cotton, water, and the drug itself are not contaminated.
• If you are an injection drug user, seek treatment as soon as possible for your substance abuse.
• Don’t share toothbrushes, floss, or razors.
• If you are HIV-positive, don’t donate blood, plasma or organs.
• Try not to come in contact with other people’s blood.
Preventing the transmissions of HIV from mother to child
• Get tested and seek treatment for HIV before becoming pregnant or as early as possible during the pregnancy.
• Take zidovudine (AZT or ZDV) or nevirapine during pregnancy and labor to reduce the chance of transmission to your baby.
• If you are HIV-positive, use baby formulas if they are available, since HIV can be transmitted through breast milk.
• Delivery by Cesarean section can reduce HIV transmission from a mother to her baby.
Did you know?
Activities such as…
• Body piercing
• Sharing razor blades
• Using performance enhancing injection drugs (i.e., steroids)
..may increase your risk for contracting HIV if contaminated equipment is used. Reusing needles and razors introduces the potential for blood-to-blood contact.
Mortality (# of deaths):Over 22 million people have already died from the virus,
Morbidity (incidence of disease): Over 42 million people in the world are currently living with HIV/ AIDS. Remember, no one actually dies from AIDS, but rather from a disease or sickness contracted while infected with HIV.
Epidemiology: HIV/ AIDS exists all over the world.
Interesting statistics/ facts:
- HIV was not identified in the United States until 1981. Because of the lack of information, approximately 150,000 American people became infected with HIV each year, which dropped to about 40,000 in the 1990’s, where it remains today.
- About 1 million people in the US have HIV/AIDS, but only 75% know that they have it.
- Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can increase your chances of contracting HIV. If it is an STD that creates sores or skin irritation, the virus can be transmitted much easier through these areas. If it is an STD that does not irritate the skin or create sores, the immune system in the genital area will be compromised, making HIV easier to spread.
What YOU can do to help: The first and most important thing you can do is to protect yourself from the disease and make sure you do not spread it to someone else. Remember, you can have HIV for over 10 years symptom-free. To get HIV testing, you can see a doctor, go to a hospital, a Planned Parenthood clinic, or other free clinics. There are federal and state testing sites that offer free testing. If you feel more comfortable doing it at home, you can purchase a home HIV test at Home Access.
You should get tested when you have engaged in any activities that could transfer HIV: unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, needle sharing, or if you are pregnant. Although it may be uncomfortable to ask a new sexual partner to get tested before engaging in sexual activity, it is much better than getting infected or spreading this virus even further.
When you get tested, your results by law must remain confidential, unless you give your written consent for it to be shared. The government requires that HIV positive results be reported in order to track the number of incidences, but you can elect to have it “anonymous”, so your name will not be attached. So, you do not need to worry about friends, family, etc finding out unless you want them to.
Another great way to slow down the disease is through education. Despite the information that is out there, many people do not understand how HIV is transmitted. In areas that received HIV education where it was previously non-existent, HIV rates fell.
For more information:
CDC (Center for Disease Control)
WHO (World Health Organization)