HIV, AIDs in 2014: The Fight Continues After 30 Years

According to the CDC, every 9 and a half minutes a person in the U.S. is infected with HIV. Currently, over 1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV.  Unfortunately, about 15% of those people don’t know that they are positive leading to missed chances for early treatment and increased risk of infection for their sexual partners. Nassau and Suffolk counties have close to 6,000 documented cases of people currently living with HIV. While the new infection rate overall hasn’t changed, advances in treatment are allowing for people to live longer, healthier lives if diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Blazey1Is HIV infection and AIDS the same diagnosis?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) are related in that HIV is the virus that will cause AIDS if untreated.  Routine HIV testing for all people allow medical providers to treat early and prevent the infection from leading to AIDS.  AIDS is diagnosed when the HIV infection breaks down the person’s immune system and allows for certain infections or cancers to occur.  Currently, many medications are available to treat HIV infections, however there is still no vaccine or cure available once infected.

Who is at risk for HIV?
All people are at risk for being infected with HIV if they are sexually active or participate in activities such as drug abuse (particularly injection drug users).  However, men who have sex with men (MSM) continue to be most affected by HIV.  In New York, the MSM population accounts for over 50% of all new HIV infections.  While people in their 20s account for over 40% of all new diagnosis, people over 50 account for a quarter of all people with HIV in the US.  Unprotected sexual activity is the cause of most infections, so if you are sexually active it is critical to practice safer sex to decrease your risk.

Are lesbians at risk for HIV?
Most people think that sexual activity between women has no risk for transmitting HIV, however that is not true.  The HIV virus can be found in vaginal secretions and could be transmitted through contact with breaks in the lining of the vagina, anus or mouth.  So while its less common to occur in this population, it is possible to be infected with HIV from cunnilingus or by sharing sexual items.

Blazey2Can a person get HIV from oral sex?
Unprotected oral sex (oral sex without a condom) is risky for contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.  While it is less risky than unprotected anal intercourse, if there are any cuts or sores in the mouth, then the risk of HIV transmission increases.  Tiny abrasions from brushing your teeth greatly increase this risk as well.  It is possible for HIV infections to occur even without these tears.  Have your sexual partner use a condom or dental dam to decrease this risk.

How can I know my HIV status?
The only way to know your status is to get tested.  Your primary care provider is required to offer HIV testing each year in NY, so don’t feel embarrassed when they ask you if you want to be tested.  Most HIV testing is performed by screening for your antibodies to the HIV virus, however newer testing protocols can screen for viral particles or the HIV virus itself.  Following a possible exposure to HIV, most people will test positive within 4 weeks, however to close the ‘window-period’ you should be retested after 3 months as well.  Talk to your doctor about testing options if you think you have been recently exposed.

How can I prevent becoming infected with HIV?  
Reducing your risk is crucial to avoid becoming infected with HIV, this starts with respecting yourself and learning about HIV/AIDS.  The only sure way not to be infected is to abstain from sexual activity and other risk behaviors.  If you chose to have sex, using protection appropriately will reduce your risk of being exposed to fluids that transmit HIV.  Knowing your HIV status and encouraging your sexual partner(s) to get tested frequently can help you make more informed decisions.

What is new with medications for treating HIV?  
Major advances in medications in the past decade have allowed many people with HIV to live their lives healthy and sometimes with only one pill a day.  Research has proven that the earlier you start treatment that you will live longer and also have less risk of passing the virus onto your sexual partners.  In addition, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a new option to decrease your risk of becoming infected with HIV by taking a daily medication if you are in a high-risk category.  PrEP may be a good option for people with multiple sexual partners or if your partner/spouse is HIV positive and you are not, however it may be costly and you need to talk with your health care provider about its risks.

We have come a long way from when HIV/AIDS was first discovered, but we haven’t defeated this epidemic that claimed so many lives of the GLBT community.  Empower yourself by learning about this disease, attend workshops to learn more.  Respect yourself and your body by committing to getting tested routinely and making informed choices to prevent becoming infected.  Know your status: if negative you can take steps to stay negative, if positive seek treatment to stay healthy.  

by Dr. Bill Blazey

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