Our understanding of AIDS has come a long way over the past 30 years. Doctors are now better equipped to treat the condition and the general public has a better grasp of what causes AIDS. However, there is still work to be done to further increase AIDS awareness and awareness about living with the condition.
What is AIDS?
AIDS is a complex condition for many to wrap their head around. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, meaning that it is a condition that people become infected with which weakens the body’s immune system. Syndrome means that AIDS is a disease consisting of many health problems and not just one problem. AIDS affects each patient differently; some will die within weeks or months of diagnosis whereas others will go on to live long lives.
What’s the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?
HIV and AIDS are often mentioned in the same breath. HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus is the virus which can lead to AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system by destroying certain white blood cells which makes it harder for the body to defend itself from infections and diseases. HIV presents with ‘flu or mono-like symptoms. Symptoms can appear as soon as a month after infection though symptoms can take years to manifest in some people. Symptoms include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Rash on the torso
With antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV may never progress to AIDS. Without treatment, HIV typically takes ten to fifteen years to turn in to AIDS. Signs that HIV has progressed to AIDS include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Chronic diarrhea
- Recurring fever
- Persistent soaking night sweats
- Unexplained fatigue
- Unusual white marks or lesions in the mouth and on the tongue
- Bumps or rashes on the skin
HIV/AIDS in the USA
In the U.S., AIDS is no longer the taboo it was in the eighties. Over 1.2 million people aged thirteen and older live with HIV in the States. Unfortunately, 12.8% of these people are not aware that they are infected so they are not receiving treatment. In recent years, infection rates have stabilized, with approximately 50,000 new infections per year. It is estimated that 1,194,039 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with AIDS.
High Risk Groups
Men who have sex with other men including bisexual and gay men are the highest risk group for infection. Homosexual and heterosexual African Americans and Hispanics are “disproportionately” affected. People who inject drugs (PWID) are the next biggest risk group. African – American PWIDs make up the majority of intravenous drug users infected with HIV. Sex workers and people under the age of 21 bottom out the list of high risk groups. Young people, in particular heterosexuals, are most likely to live with unknown and untreated HIV as there is a societal sense of complacency that they are not at high risk for infection.
How is HIV Transmitted?
There are a number of ways a person can become infected with HIV as the virus lives in bodily fluids including semen, rectal and vaginal fluids, blood and breastmilk:
- Through anal or vaginal sex with an infected person.
- Sharing sex toys
- Sharing needles, syringes and other intravenous drug paraphernalia
- Being pricked by a contaminated needle
- Being born to or breastfeed for an infected mother
- Receiving blood transfusions, organs or tissue from an infected person
- Oral sex or deep kissing with an infected person who has open sores or bleeding gums
- A person with another sexually transmitted infection like chlamydia, gonorrhea or herpes, has an increased risk of picking up HIV.
- Some people have an undetectable viral load of HIV in their blood, due to successful ART treatments. However, these people can still transmit the infection to others, though with a much lower chance of infection. There is no cure for HIV.
How HIV Is NOT Transmitted
HIV is not found in saliva, sweat, tears or on the surface of the skin. The virus can only survive for a very short period of time outside the body. The infection cannot be spread by air, water or insects. HIV cannot be passed from person to by person by handshakes, hugging or touching or using items used by an infected person e.g. a toilet seat, a door knob, cutlery or crockery. HIV cannot be passed on if an infected person scratches or spits on another person. A person cannot pick up HIV by eating food cooked by an infected person, even if a small amount of contaminated fluid made it into the food. High temperatures and exposure to air will destroy the virus.
World AIDS Day occurs on December 1st each year. Raising HIV and AIDS awareness is crucial in limiting the spread of the infection.
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