According to National Aids Control Council, 300,000 young people below the age of 24 years are living with HIV AIDS, or human immunodeficiency virus. There are 48 new infections every day among young people aged between 10 – 24 years.
Thanks to celebration-worthy advances in medicine, HIV is far from the death sentence it used to be. Treatment can even get the virus down to undetectable levels in people’s blood. In addition to being manageable, there’s another key thing to keep in mind: HIV is preventable, too. Dr. Audrey, a general practitioner at Savannah Healthcare Services explain what you need to know.
1. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing.
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. Without treatment, it can become AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which leaves people vulnerable to dire infections.
There’s no immediate sign a person’s developed HIV. Often there are no indications at all. Some people might develop a reaction to the virus that causes flu-like symptoms—a fever, rash, sore throat, headache, or other annoyances that are easy to write off as a normal illness. But while this tends to clear up on its own, HIV is still in the body, and it’s not until later that the damage becomes obvious—and dangerous.
Healthy people usually have 500 to 1,600 T-cells per cubic millimeter of blood, according to AIDS.gov. When someone’s number of T-cells drops below 200 per cubic millimeter of blood, their HIV has officially progressed to AIDS.
2. Anyone can get HIV.
Folks with HIV come from all walks of life. It’s not just one socioeconomic class that struggles with this, although some do more than others. Gay and bisexual men of all races are most severely affected.
3. There’s a common misconception that people die from AIDS itself, but that’s not true.
AIDS can cause symptoms like chills, fever, sweats, swollen lymph glands, weakness, and weight loss, but it doesn’t usually kill people. Instead, the culprits are “opportunistic infections,” like pneumonia or various cancers, that a person’s weakened immune system can’t fight off. Without treatment, people with AIDS usually survive for around three years. Once they’re infected with an opportunistic infection, life expectancy drops to a year. The exact length of time depends on the illness, what doctors can do to treat it, and how much someone’s damaged immune system can take.
4. Certain sexual acts are more likely than others to pass HIV from one partner to another.
The virus is only transmitted through certain bodily fluids: blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. For infection to occur, these fluids need to come into contact with mucous membranes, which are found inside the mouth, penis, vagina, and rectum.
Anal sex is most likely to transmit HIV. While less likely, it can also be passed through vaginal sex. And while the risk is “extremely low,” it’s also possible to pass it through oral sex. But HIV can’t be transmitted through kissing (unless both people are making out deeply and have open sores or bleeding gums), sitting on a toilet seat, using the same utensils as someone who has the virus, or other forms of casual contact.
Beyond sex, HIV can also be transmitted when injecting drugs with needles because of the blood involved.
5. HIV treatment is leaps and bounds from where it was in the past.
When HIV was first discovered in the 1980s, it was a terminal illness. “In the ’90s, there were medications that were effective but difficult to tolerate. In the 2000s, there were more tolerable medications, but people still struggled with side effects,” Carpenter says. “Now, we’re very good at handling HIV.”
HIV treatment is based on antiretroviral therapy, or ART. “If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of infecting others. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.
Although ART is not a cure, it can bring someone’s viral HIV load to undetectable levels. Their immune systems can rebuild without being under constant siege, and their chances of passing the virus to others lower dramatically. ART is necessary to prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS.
6. But despite the improvement in treatment, prevention is still absolutely crucial.
Abstinence is the obvious way to protect yourself, but we all live in the real world. Next step: safe sex. “Nothing is 100 percent, but you need to use barrier protection. Condoms, female condoms, and dental dams are all good options. And if you have a choice in material, opt for latex or polyurethane—lambskin doesn’t prevent transmission of STDs.
7. Everyone should be tested for HIV—yes, everyone.
Everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 needs to be tested for HIV at least once, but many doctors recommend HIV testing at least once a year if you’re having sex.
There are different kinds of HIV tests, but the most common one looks for antibodies in the blood, not for the virus itself. The body often needs three to 12 weeks to mount that antibody response, so it can take around that long or longer for a test to show up positive, according to the CDC.
There’s nothing shameful about getting tested, or talking about it. In fact, both are important. “If you’re going to have a sexual relationship, you need to be able to sit down and discuss all the things that can happen: pregnancy, HIV, and other STDs,” Dr Audrey says.