You’ve probably heard about it for most of your life. You may even have been told you have it. So what is HIV/AIDs?
What is HIV?
HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. It is a sexually transmitted disease, but it can also be spread through other means, such as using infected needles. It attacks your body’s ability to combat disease. It’s easy to see the inherent problem with this– most of the time, your body’s immune system can combat a virus, like the common cold or chicken pox, and repress it enough so that it’s dormant and you no longer feel the symptoms. But if the disease attacks your immune system itself, it can seem like an impossible battle. Those who die with HIV/AIDs don’t technically die of the disease– they die of other diseases that their weakened condition cannot combat.
Once HIV has progressed enough, it becomes AIDs. AIDs stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDs is the final stage of an HIV infection– you are considered to have AIDs instead of HIV when you begin to display certain symptoms and test positive for certain diseases.
Many people who are infected with HIV don’t ever get to this stage. They can keep their viral load in check with medications and go on to live fairly normal lives. Some get there and are able to undergo treatment that gets them back to healthy. The advances in medical technology for people living with HIV or AIDs has been astounding in the past couple of decades and we continue to move forward with cure progress even to this day. But that wasn’t always the case.
The History of HIV
HIV/AIDs has had a complex history. The first recorded instance of HIV in the United State was in 1981, but the disease predates this discovery.
We know that the disease originated with chimpanzees, but we don’t know exactly how humans came to contract it. Chimpanzees have a version of HIV called Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that’s been around for millions of years. It’s very likely that a human contracted SIV, which, when inside of the human’s body and interacting with their physiology, morphed into HIV. Chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of Africa, where the virus was traced back to, are often hunted by local humans, so it’s very likely that contaminated blood could have infected a hunter’s wound, and then that hunter passed it along to their community without even knowing. This is considered to be the most likely of scenarios.
Originally, researchers thought the disease was created by accident in the 1950s when researchers making the polio vaccine used tissues from SIV-infected apes to make their vaccine, unintentionally spreading it to thousands in Africa. This was found to be untrue. A recent sample of the original vaccine made using the ape tissues was found and it had no traces of SIV or HIV.
There are also rumors that HIV was created in a lab to destroy the two largest infected communities in the US– the homosexual male population and the African-American population. This is also not true.
For a long time, the blame for bringing HIV to the United States was passed off on a gay flight attendant, often labeled as Patient Zero. But today, this is recognized as anti-gay fear-mongering. In fact, in the late 1960s, a teenager in Indiana showed up at his local hospital displaying very strange symptoms. He died shortly thereafter, but a reexamination of his condition in recent years has lead to it being speculated that he, too, had either HIV or AIDs. It’s very possible that HIV has been in the US for at least two decades before this Patient Zero was active.
There’s a stigma that HIV/AIDs is a gay man’s disease. But the reality is that it can, and it does, affect everyone. It doesn’t matter what you identify as or who you’re having sex with, you can catch HIV. In fact, that first known example of a female-to-female HIV transmission was announced this year.
Here are some brief statistics about HIV/AIDs, from UNAids:
- In the United States alone, there are around 50,000 new HIV infections every year.
- As of 2012, there were 35.3 million people worldwide who were infected with HIV/AIDs.
- The peak of the AIDs death rate was as recently as 2005, when 2.3 million people died.
- Since then, the death rate has fallen by a whopping 30%– to about 1.6 million in 2012.
- Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 36 million people have died of AIDs and approximately 75 million have been infected.
- Access to antiretroviral therapy has gone up by 40-fold for people around the globe
How Is It Transmitted?
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluid contact:
- unprotected sex
- shared needles through intravenous drug use, medicine, or tattooing
- birth (from mother to child)
- blood transfusions
HIV is NOT transmitted via the following:
- kissing or hugging an infected person
- the tears, boogers, sweat, or spit of an infected person
- sharing linens, toilet seats, swimming pools, or eating utensils with an infected person
- animal bites, including mosquitos who may have bitten an infected person
Here in the U.S, we are very lucky to live in a very HIV-aware society. The blood used in transfusions is checked routinely. We know how to treat and care for HIV-positive mothers-to-be to lower the risk of them passing it to their children. Clean needles are a strict regiment in hospitals and tattoo parlors, and there are even needle exchange programs in many cities around the United States for drug users.
That just leaves unprotected sex. So, how can you do your part to protect yourself?
Be Safe Out There
There are many ways to keep yourself safe from contracting HIV/AIDs. The first is to wear protection. Even if your partner tells you their status, even if you are faithful, unless you are holding the note from their doctor in your hands, you won’t know for certain. In the casual sex community, this can be a big problem.
There’s no one specific type of person who’s infected with HIV. Often, you can’t tell just by looking at someone if they’re a carrier. Sometimes, they might not even know themselves if they were recently infected. If you don’t know your partner’s status, you need to take immediate precautions to protect your health. The best way of doing so is by using a barrier device, like a condom.
We may call condoms birth control devices, but they actually do so much more, including protecting you from HIV/AIDs. In fact, they and the intravaginal ring are the only form of birth control that also protects you from diseases–hormonal birth control will not. Back when I was taking sex ed, there was a big rumor that HIV was small enough to pass through condoms. This is not the case, with the only exception being lambskin condoms, like Trojan NaturaLambs, which do not prevent any STDs.
Still, if you’re nervous about condoms, or if you may have unintentionally had unprotected sex, it’s not the end of the world. Called the Morning After Pill for HIV, Truvada can be taken by non-infected people as a prophylactic if they think they’ve been exposed to HIV/AIDs. This is a serious breakthrough for seriodiscordant couples (where one partner is positive and one isn’t), folks in casual relationships, rape victims, and millions of other situations. Unfortunately, it’s not currently well-known– so get the word out!
How To Get Tested
No matter how you’re protecting yourself, you’ll need to get tested every so often. Even if you are in a completely monogamous relationship, it’s a great idea to get tested for all STDs at least once a year, if not more often.
AIDs.gov is a great resource for helping you find an HIV testing center near you. But there are also home testing kits that are FDA-approved that are available in the United States.
The optimal testing window is twelve weeks after potential exposure, but for some, it may take up to six months. If you’re super concerned that you were recently exposed and the thought is driving you crazy, consult a doctor or a specialist at a testing center. They will help you discuss your options which may give you peace of mind until you can be tested.
I’m Positive. Now What?
Finding out that you’re HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was. There are many resources available, although they may not be available everywhere in the world. To see what resources might be available to you, read this wonderful article by.
Join a positive community to stay up-to-date on the latest news in the search for the cure. Reddit has a growing community, and POS Magazine is a great resource. Their website even has . These resources can help you deal with any anxiety you may feel from your diagnosis, and help you realize that you’re not alone out there. Many HIV-positive people go on to live long, fruitful lives and their care is only getting better with each passing year.
But the first step to remaining positive while you’re HIV-positive is to take care of your health. Keeping up with your doctor and your medication is the best way for you to stay fit and healthy. You will be put on an antiretroviral therapy, and your viral load will need to be tested every so often to make sure you aren’t becoming immune to the therapy. Your doctor can also help you know which vaccinations to get to prevent you from contracting potentially dangerous diseases.
But on top of that, you’ll need to make sure you’re protecting your partners. They need to be aware that you are positive before having any kind of sexual contact with you, even if your viral load is undetectable. Sometimes, that may mean rejection, which is unfortunate, but not the end of the world. Hiding the truth can have very serious consequences, besides putting your partner at risk for a life-threatening disease. Many countries, including the US and Canada, will prosecute people who knowingly pass HIV to others– in fact, has prosecutors aiming for a life sentence.