When we broach the topic of HIV, it can be a very uncomfortable and tough conversation to have. There are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions around the disease, so having some basic sexual education can help prevent this misinformed thought process and raise awareness regarding the disease and its origins. Unfortunately, oftentimes we notice that schools lack the knowledge or desire to teach about the disease, and instead only teach how to abstain from sex to prevent you from getting it. This skips past many key points, including how HIV is actually contracted, and what treatment options are available to those who may contract it. Remember that knowledge is power, and that generally people are going to have sex. Empowering the world to know what could happen and how is much better than telling the general population just to abstain.
The discovery of HIV
In the early 1980s, the United States began experiencing unusual deaths and infections from people whose immune systems just seemed to be failing. Doctors were confused and concerned about these mysterious deaths and illnesses. It was the mystery killer, and because it’s only been known for about 40 years, it’s a pretty new disease that we are still learning about constantly. Because we are still learning, there are ever-growing discoveries in the knowledge and treatment of this disease. The efficacy of medications and prevention methods is constantly improved upon, and the lifestyle of an HIV-positive person is getting better every single day.
What are the origins of HIV?
The virus seems to have originated from chimps. We see simian immunodeficiency viruses- SIV– in chimps, but we are still trying to truly narrow down and identify how it morphed and jumped from chimps to humans. Scientists and researchers have made a potential link from hunters. The potential for human hunters to have eaten infected meat or come into contact with the blood of a monkey or ape infected with SIV is very high – and with that, SIV could have morphed into what we now know as HIV.
But wouldn’t I know I have it?
Like many sexually transmitted diseases or infections, HIV does not always make you feel sick. You could be infected for years, even decades, and feel totally fine. Because of this, many people who are carrying the virus have unknowingly transmitted it to their partners. In fact, some people never know they have the virus until it morphs and progresses into AIDS, which is the acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS deteriorates the immune system drastically, and can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, coughing, loss of weight, constant fevers, and even neurological issues. Because symptoms of HIV, in the beginning, are similar to cough or other common infection, it is almost never a concern or thought to a healthcare practitioner.
According to the CDC, out of the 1.2 million people in the United States that are estimated to have HIV, 1 in 5 have no idea that they have the virus at all. This number is staggeringly high. Many practitioners do not offer or go out of their way to suggest screening for the virus, which leads to undiagnosed and easy spreadability.
HIV is not just a gay man’s disease.
Of course, we often hear that gay men most frequently get HIV. In fact, when it was originally discovered, it was actually considered a gay mans disease. While around a quarter of new cases of HIV do infect men who have sexual intercourse with other men, injected or injectable drug use actually play a huge role in the transmission of HIV. Anyone of any age, gender, race, or sexual orientation can contract HIV.
Does HIV always become AIDS?
Having HIV does not automatically mean you will have or will develop AIDS. While the virus is a lifelong infection, it does not always progress to AIDS. People living with HIV – the acronym for human immunodeficiency virus – can undergo antiretroviral therapy treatments, which help prolong life expectancy and prevent the further deterioration of the immune system.
Ease of spreadability
HIV is not something that you contract super easily. If you shake hands, share toilet seats, or share dishes with someone with the virus, you are not at risk for getting HIV. However, sharing needles, having contact with semen or blood, or receive a transfusion with infected blood, you are at risk. Blood for transfusions is very heavily screened in the US, negating that risk for the most part. Nursing mothers can also transmit HIV through their breast milk.
Let’s say both you and your partner have the virus and are symptom-free – you still need to have safe sex. There are actually different strains or variations of HIV, which means that even if you both have it, it may not be the same! This is why safe sex is always a key for prevention of STIs. Latex condoms are the most effective protection against HIV. At this time, lambskin condoms are ineffective, as the virus can pass through them. Dental dams are recommended for oral sex.
HIV diagnosis, treatment, and prevention
A diagnosis of HIV no longer means you only have a few years to live. At the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this was typically the case, as the disease was so unknown and new. Now we have constant innovations in the medical world that allow for better treatment, and prevention from progressing to AIDS. At the moment, HIV is not curable. However, there are nine different forms or classes of drugs for HIV, and many combinations to help control symptoms.
The virus and pregnancy
While you can still have a baby if you are HIV positive, it is vital to remember that the virus can pass from mother to baby. The safest option at this time is to be on antiretroviral drugs throughout pregnancy, not breastfeeding, and have a C-section. However, this only reduces the risk of passing HIV along and does not remove it. It is important to discuss risks with your doctor, and choose the best treatment options to prevent this spread if possible. Your doctor can also let you know if your risks are exceptionally high, and what the expectancy is for your pregnancy.
Life with an HIV Positive diagnosis
HIV is no longer a death sentence in the United States. While safe sex is the best sex, remember that if you are HIV positive, you can live a healthy, fulfilling life. It is important to find the right treatment option for you, use protection, and communicate with your partners the potential risks of spreading. Open communication can prevent uncomfortability and the risk of spreading to someone who is unaware of potential risks. There may be a stigma around the virus, but like many other STDs, it can be contracted without any knowledge or symptoms.