What Is HIV?

December 1st is World AIDS Day, so we’re focusing on HIV this month in our STI Awareness series.

Let’s break down the name:
H – Human: This virus only infects humans and is only passed from human to human.
I – Immunodeficiency: This virus weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight disease and infection.
V – Virus: This is a virus. Unlike other viruses, however, this virus does not leave the body. This is the mystery that scientists and doctors are working to solve.

HIV is an immune system virus. It hides for a long time in your cells and attacks the T-cells, aka: CD4 cells. Over time HIV can destroy so many CD4 cells that your body cannot fight infection anymore. When that happens, HIV leads to AIDS. While all of this is very scary, the bright spot is that this is an easily preventable disease.

HIV is primarily spread by unprotected sex with a person who is infected with HIV. Although it was considered a “homosexual’s disease” when it was first discovered in the early 1980’s, it is known that HIV infects both genders, homosexual and heterosexual. The best prevention has been proven to be the consistent and correct usage of a barrier method – a condom or dental dam – preferably latex. Other excellent prevention methods include being in a long-term, monogamous relationship and limiting the overall number of sexual partners. Effective sex education is also important in providing young people with knowledge and skills to protect themselves.

The early symptoms of HIV are easily mistaken for the flu. They may include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph glands and a rash. You can sometimes present symptoms two to four weeks after sexual intercourse with an infected partner. The most important thing to do if you suspect HIV is to be tested. The tests detect the HIV antibodies. These are the substances created by the body in response to being infected. There are rapid-results tests that give you results in 30 minutes and then other testing will give you results in one to two weeks.

According to the CDC, in 2009, there were an estimated 11,200 new HIV infections among women in the U.S. That year women comprised 51percent of the population and 23 percent of those newly infected. Fifty-seven percent of infected women were African-American, 21 percent were Caucasian, 16 percent were Hispanic/Latinas. One of the things most worrying in infected women is that HIV is present in breast milk, transmitting the disease to a baby.

HIV is preventable but not curable…so far. The best prevention is information and barriers – condoms and dental dams.

Prevention is simple, and yet there is so much misinformation about HIV You can do your part in preventing the spread of HIV: become educated about HIV, insist on medically accurate and informative sex education in our schools, ALWAYS use condoms or dental dams, and advocate for research into the causes and cures for HIV.