While contracting HIV/AIDS is no longer seen as a death sentence in the United States, millions of people around the world continue to contract HIV and die of the last stage of the virus’ infection – acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
World AIDS Day, which is on Dec. 1, is designed to bring attention to the disease that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.1 million Americans over the age of 13 continue to live with.
With the theme “Everyone Counts,” the World Health Organization will highlight the need for all 36.7 million people living with HIV and those who are vulnerable to help reach the goal of universal health coverage.
Marlene McNeese-Ward, bureau chief of the Houston Department of Health and Human Services-HIV/STD Prevention, said the public needs to be knowledgeable on HIV/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,” McNeese-Ward said.
The Houston area has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Texas, a reality with incalculable public health and social consequences, Ward said.
“Although we have the medical and scientific know-how to end the epidemic, we must do more to fight the social factors that perpetuate the disease,” she said.
Here are 10 facts you should know about HIV/AIDS from Ward and other medical experts.
- Anyone can get HIV.
When HIV and AIDS first appeared, it was called a “gay disease.” That title has since been abandoned because it’s now recognized that anyone can be infected with HIV. In the U.S., gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men continue to be at the greatest risk for HIV infection, but AIDS is also spread through heterosexual sex.
The virus continues to be spread through sharing drug paraphernalia with people who are HIV-infected. African-Americans make up only about 12 percent of the population but account for nearly half of the people in the country living with HIV, according to the CDC.
- The death toll from AIDS is astronomical.
Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in 1981, more than 70 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, and approximately 35 million people have died from AIDS, including more than 675,000 in the U.S., according to agencies such as the World Health Organization and the CDC.
Overall, however, the rate of new HIV infections and diagnoses is now dropping in the U.S., likely due to prevention efforts. But progress has been uneven. Certain groups, such as Hispanic and Black gay and bisexual men, have had rising numbers of infections and diagnoses.
- You can have HIV and not know it.
When some people are first infected with HIV, they can experience flulike symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headache, sore throat, and muscle and joint pain within the first two to four weeks. (Other symptoms include painful, swollen lymph nodes and a skin rash with small pink or red bumps.)
But many other people won’t experience any symptoms at all during this early (acute) stage of infection, the CDC reports, and they can spread the virus without realizing it. 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 these can be confused with other ailments.
- HIV prevention is key.
Because HIV is transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids, the best way to prevent infection is to always practice safe sex and avoid using drug paraphernalia like needles. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once for HIV, and as often as every six months if you have multiple sexual partners, have unprotected sex, or use needles to inject drugs.
If you’re at a very high risk for getting infected taking a medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, may help keep you safe, says the CDC. This preventive treatment lowers your chances of being infected by stopping the virus from getting a foothold in your body. PrEP, however, has to be taken consistently and exactly as your doctor prescribes it. The CDC says this regimen can lower your risk of getting HIV from sex by 90 percent and cut the risk of transmission among injection drug users by more than 70 percent.
- HIV has a powerful opponent.
Before 1996, contracting the HIV was basically a death sentence. But then, over the course of the next two decades, a regimen of drugs known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) evolved and came into use. This drug regimen helps prevent the virus from replicating and can help keep the infection from causing AIDS, transforming a fatal disease into a manageable one.
“These drugs have been an amazing scientific advancement,” Ward said. “Most of the people who die nowadays are those who are unaware they have [AIDS] until symptoms become severe.” Even people who think they may have been exposed to HIV have options – if they act very quickly.
- You can’t get HIV/AIDS from just any kind of contact.
Myths still abound about HIV/AIDS. For example, you can’t get HIV from insect bites or stings, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing toilets or dishes, according to the CDC. You also can’t get infected from a closed-mouth kiss or contact with an infected person’s sweat or tears. You can’t get it by simply working or hanging out with someone who has AIDS or is HIV positive, either. HIV transmission from one woman to another woman through sexual contact is also rare, the CDC says.
- It’s not just a man’s disease.
Approximately one-quarter of people with HIV in the U.S. are female, the CDC reports, and most were exposed to the virus through heterosexual sex. A woman who is pregnant and has HIV/AIDS can pass HIV to her unborn children during pregnancy; she can also transmit the virus during childbirth and when breast-feeding, the CDC says.
- There is more than one type of HIV
Some sources often refer to HIV as if it were just one entity, but there are in fact two strains of the virus: HIV-1 and HIV-2. Most of the HIV infections in the U.S. and around the world are HIV-1. If it’s not treated, HIV-1 causes AIDS, the CDC notes. The other type of HIV – HIV-2 – is found mostly in West Africa. It’s rare in the U.S. and is also less likely to lead to AIDS.
- You can test yourself for HIV in the privacy of your own home.
Several at-home HIV tests have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and can be bought online or at a drugstore. Many of these tests ask consumers to prick their finger with a needle, place a few drops of blood on a blotter pad, and then mail the sample to a lab. Of course, you can also see your doctor for a conventional blood test or visit almost any public health center for a blood or saliva test (usually free). These centers also offer confidential on-site counseling. The CDC notes that if you get a positive result from any at-home test, you’ll have to get other testing to confirm the results.
- HIV/AIDS is still a huge (and sometimes overlooked) problem.
More than 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States today, but a staggering number of them – an estimated one in seven – don’t know they’re infected, Ward said.