We've all heard of HIV sometime in our lives and probably have a very vague description of what it is. But the more you search and learn about it, the more questions arise. This might not be the A to Z of HIV and AIDS because there is a lot more to know, but it will certainly give you a scope of the virus, stigma, therapy, and more, which can help prevent HIV from spreading, and in the process, save lives.
Ok so, what is HIV?
The human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV, is a virus capable of damaging the cells in your immune system, making it way harder for the body to fight other infections or illnesses. If HIV is not properly treated, it can lead to its late infectious stage, called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
How is it transmitted?
From sexual contact: The most common way HIV is transmitted is through sexual intercourse with an infected person; it enters the body through the lining of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth. It can be passed through pre-ejaculatory fluid, semen, vaginal fluids, or rectal fluids, so an essential way of protecting yourself is by using barrier methods like a male or female condom.
Through blood contamination:
The virus is transmitted when certain fluids (previously stated) or blood of one person with HIV come in contact with another person's bloodstream. Nowadays, thanks to the previous tests before transfusing, the risk of blood transfusion contamination in a lab is extremely low. Nonetheless, for drug users who share needles, syringes, or other injecting equipment, transmission risks are very high. Another risk is tattoo needles previously used.
Mother to Infant: HIV can be transmitted through pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding by mothers infected with the virus.
Let's debunk some myths:
There is a lot of misinformation about this topic. Many people who have HIV tend to be stigmatized and discriminated against for this reason, so it's crucial to know that there is no risk of getting HIV from a person's urine, sweat, tears, or saliva unless there is blood in it. And no, mosquitoes can't transmit HIV either. HIV cannot be transmitted through sharing food utensils, towels, or bedding.
Can you contract HIV from oral sex? maybe. The truth is that there is very little evidence that giving oral sex is a risk for contracting HIV. If you have a cut, sore, or any other break in the skin or mouth, abstain from giving oral sex.
Symptoms and Stages:
Symptoms vary from person to person; people may not experience symptoms for years, putting themselves and others at risk.
The most common symptom is experiencing a short flu-like illness that can last for a week or two; this is called an Acute HIV infection (Stage 1). After stage 1, people might not get any other symptoms, but the virus is still multiplying at very low levels, and people become transmitters (Stage 2, also called Clinical Latency or Chronic HIV Infection). The third and late stage is the development of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Some of the symptoms of AIDs include rapid weight loss, fever, extreme tiredness, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and more.
Even though there is still no cure for HIV, people that control the virus by taking medication can live long, fulfilling lives without ever developing AIDS.
The Diagnosis and Science Behind HIV:
HIV kills CD4 cells, which play a key role in the immune system. A healthy body usually has a CD4 count ranging from 500 to 1600 cells/mm3, but when a CD4 count is lower than 200 cells/mm3, a person will be diagnosed with AIDS.
According to the CDC, there are three types of HIV tests:
Nucleic Acid Test (NATs): Detects infection 10 to 33 days after exposure. This type of text is very expensive and not usually used for screening unless the person has had a high chance of exposure.
Antigen/antibody Tests: Antigens are foreign molecular structures that cause your immune system to activate. Antibodies are produced by your immune system to fight viruses (like HIV). If you have HIV, there will be the presence of an antigen called p24, so this test will be able to detect HIV infection 18 to 45 days after the exposure.
Antibody Tests: This test takes between 23 and 90 days to detect HIV after exposure. There are also FDA-Approved Self-tests for HIV (meaning that they are the only tests you can do at home or any other private location) that can give you results between 20 to 40 minutes. However, if the home test is positive, a follow-up laboratory test will be needed to confirm the results.
What happens if you test positive?
Testing positive can be very overwhelming to some, which is entirely normal. Nonetheless, there are many resources that will help you through the journey; just know that you are not alone.
Thanks to advancements in technology and medicine, HIV is now a manageable illness. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) consists of taking a daily combination of medicines that prevent HIV from multiplying and reducing its viral load (decreases the amount of HIV in the body). Even though the treatment doesn't cure HIV altogether, it certainly helps the body recover, produces more CD4 cells for the immune system to fight infections, and even prevents transmission to others!
The combinations of the medicine taken vary from person to person since each body is and reacts differently. People with HIV can take between 1 and 4 pills a day depending on the specified treatment, it is imperative that people follow the exact instructions of their physician and don't miss out on a day taking the pills because there might be a risk of HIV becoming drug-resistant when not taking the medication properly. These are some of the inhibitors you can find in ART therapy:
Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
Protease inhibitors (PIs)
CCR5 antagonists and post-attachment inhibitors
What if I may be exposed to HIV-positive people?
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a method to prevent HIV for people who don't have it but may have a high risk of getting it. For example, it is prescribed to HIV-negative patients who have an HIV-positive partner. Other reasons why you may want to take PrEP are if:
You have not consistently used a condom and/or have been diagnosed with an STD in the past six months.
You inject drugs and share syringes or needles.
Even if you are taking PrEP, you must protect yourself with a condom when having sex.
The stigma around HIV:
Nowadays, there is still a lot of prejudice against people who have HIV, and it all comes down to the misinformation and ignorance around the topic, some even thinking that touching or being near a person with HIV can expose them to the virus.
Others sponsor the hatred and Homophobic agenda by saying that HIV is directly related to homosexuality and polygamy. There even was a time in the 80s where AIDS started being called "The Gay Plage", a concept powered by religious and conservative groups at the time. While it's true that gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are the population most affected by HIV in the U.S, HIV doesn't care about your ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference.
The day that this blog is coming out (March 10) is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. In the U.S, black and Hispanic women are the most vulnerable group of women to get the disease due to medical mistrust, stigma, poverty, and discrimination, which may prevent them from getting tested or seeking help.
As you can see, it is not sexual orientation nor gender, but lack of support, lack of education, and discrimination that directly relates HIV to the people most vulnerable for contracting it and not treating it on time. If you suffer from, are highly exposed, or have friends with HIV, share this information with them. Knowledge certainly is power, and prevention and early detection are essential in this matter.