Educating Ourselves and Our Communities
Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to increasing awareness about HIV/AIDS, those with the disease, those newly diagnosed and preventing as many new cases as possible. The People’s Clinic works to educate our communities on HIV and current treatments, as well as dispel myths about the disease.
What are HIV and AIDS?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes the life-threatening disease known as AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. First identified in the early 1980s, the infection continues to spread worldwide and disproportionately affects minorities in the United States. HIV attacks your immune system, the system that helps our bodies fight illness, by destroying a certain type of white blood cell (T cells), which we need to fight disease. AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection; having AIDS means this virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a very difficult time fighting infection.
How do you get HIV?
Many people do not know that HIV is a very delicate virus, so it does not stay alive for very long outside a person’s body. HIV is primarily found in the blood, semen, or vaginal fluid of an infected person. Pregnant mothers can transmit HIV to their unborn child during childbirth or through breast feeding. The three most commons means of transmission are:
• Having sex (anal, vaginal or oral) with someone infected with HIV
• Sharing needles and syringes with someone infected with HIV
• Exposure to HIV before or during birth or through breast feeding – it is important to note that there are many medications/treatments now available that significantly reduce the rate of transmission of HIV from mother to child.
It is also important to understand how it is NOT transmitted. HIV is not transmitted through shaking hands, hugging or a casual kiss. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food or pets. You also cannot get HIV from mosquitoes.
How can HIV infection be prevented?
The best way to prevent HIV is to avoid risky behaviors, such as using intravenous drugs, having unprotected sex, or having multiple partners. No matter what your age, if you are sexually active (particularly with a new partner), male latex condoms and female polyurethane condoms offer the best protection and should be used for all sexual encounters. Persons who have been diagnosed with another sexually transmitted infection (such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia.) are also at higher risk of contracting HIV, as the virus can also be transmitted through open sores, abrasions, or cuts.
It is also important to talk to your partner(s) about HIV/AIDS before you have sex. Learn as much as you can about each partner’s past behavior (sex and drug use), and consider the risks to your health before you have sex. Ask your partners if they have recently been tested for HIV; encourage those who have not been tested to do so. To protect yourself, remember the ABCs (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condoms).
How do I know
if I have HIV?
The only way to know for sure whether you are infected with HIV is to get a blood test. Your local health department as well as many free clinics and other health organizations across the state provide free or low cost HIV testing and counseling. Detecting the virus early is important, because it allows for the best treatment options and for behavior changes to prevent others from becoming infected! Some people experience flu-like symptoms shortly after contracting the virus, but other people may have no symptoms at all. Sometimes, the virus can live for years in the body before producing clinical symptoms. This is often the time when it is spread unknowingly from person to person, so it is important to get tested to reduce the spread of this terrible disease.
What do I do now?
It is important to remember is that HIV does not have to be fatal. When someone is diagnosed positive, he/she should get into medical care as soon as possible. People who are diagnosed sooner after infection and who receive medical care are much more likely to live longer and with fewer complications. Those who delay testing or medical care are likely to become much sicker, much faster, and are more likely to die.
Discussing one’s HIV status with friends and family or a sexual partner can be difficult and frightening, but it is very important that someone who is diagnosed with HIV share that information with all sexual partners and practice behaviors to prevent the spread of the infection.
What can I expect when I go see the doctor?
Depending on immune status, an HIV-positive person may or may not need to start antiretroviral medications. If one’s immune status is good, most doctors will delay medication therapy and continue to monitor the person’s immune status and HIV levels with blood tests. If one’s immune status is fair to poor, most doctors will choose to prescribe the person a combination antiretroviral regimen, also known as a “drug cocktail.” Some people may also need to take other medications to help prevent certain types of infections if their immune systems have been damaged by HIV.
Learn more at www.AIDS.gov. For information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity and resources in your area, visit: http://www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE or call toll free 1-877-530-1824.