HIV/AIDS may be the world’s most feared disease — but awareness, which can help prevent transmission and save lives, begins with you.
In 1981, a person with a strange blood disease was admitted to a government research hospital. It would be six months before a second case appeared, but doctors were alarmed — and as it turns out, their concerns were justified.
They didn’t realize it at the time, but the AIDS epidemic had begun. However, even those on the front line probably couldn’t imagine that 30 years later, 34 million people around the globe would be living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Today, AIDS is no longer seen as an automatic death sentence, at least in developed countries with the resources to treat it. Still, millions of people around the world are becoming infected with HIV and dying of AIDS. “There are a lot of reasons why people need to know about HIV/AIDS, from determining whether they are at risk themselves to even how to speak sensitively to someone who has the disease,” says Steven Santiago, MD, medical director of Care Resource, a nonprofit HIV/AIDS organization in South Florida.
Is it time to brush up on your HIV/AIDS knowledge?
1. Anyone can get HIV. Today, this immune system-destroying disease is known as AIDS, which stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The virus that causes it is HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. But when the disease first appeared, AIDS was given other names, including “gay cancer” and GRID, which stood for gay-related immune deficiency. Those names fell by the wayside when it was realized that everyone — not just people who are gay — are at risk.
2. AIDS’ death toll is astronomic. Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in 1981, more than 30 million people worldwide have died from the disease, including more than 600,000 in the United States.
3. You can have HIV and not know it. HIV can remain undetected for as long as 10 years, and during that time, someone who’s infected can spread it to many others. The only way to know for sure whether you or your partner is HIV-positive is to get tested. Late-stage HIV — before it becomes AIDS — does cause symptoms, but they can be easily confused with other ailments.
4. Prevention is key. Because HIV/AIDS is transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids, the best way to prevent infection is to have safe sex (by consistently using a condom) and not injecting yourself with drugs or sharing needles. If you have multiple sexual partners, have unprotected sex, or use needles to inject drugs, federal health agencies recommend getting tested for HIV every six months.
5. HIV has a powerful opponent. Before 1996, an AIDS diagnosis was basically a death sentence. But during that year, a class of drugs known as antiretroviral therapy came into use. This so-called drug cocktail, which prevents the HIV virus from replicating, can keep the disease from turning into AIDS, transforming a fatal disease into a manageable one. “These drugs have been an amazing scientific advancement,” Dr. Santiago says. “Most of the people who die nowadays are those who are unaware they have [AIDS] until symptoms become severe.”
6. You can’t get HIV from these things: Myths still abound about HIV/AIDS, so it’s important to know that you cannot get it from insect bites or stings, a closed-mouth kiss, or an infected person’s sweat or tears. You cannot get it by simply working or hanging out with someone who has AIDS or is HIV-positive either.
7. It’s not just a man’s disease. Of the 34 million people worldwide who have AIDS, about half of them are women or girls. And a woman with AIDS or HIV is particularly vulnerable because of the possibility of passing the disease to her unborn children.
8. African-Americans carry a bigger HIV/AIDS burden. Although African-Americans make up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up nearly half the people in the country who are living with HIV.
9. You can test yourself for HIV in the privacy of your own home. The HomeAccess HIV-1 Test System is an at-home test that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can be bought online or at many drugstores. The test, which costs about $44, involves pricking your finger with a needle, placing a few drops of blood on the blotter pad, and then mailing it to a lab. Of course, you can also see your doctor for a conventional blood test or visit an HIV/AIDS treatment center for a blood or saliva test, which is usually free. These centers also offer confidential on-site counseling.
10. HIV/AIDS is still a huge problem. In the United States, someone becomes infected with HIV every 9½ minutes — and one in five people infected with HIV are unaware of it.