July is National Human Immunodeficiency Disease (HIV) Awareness Month. HIV is the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Unlike other viruses, the human body cannot rid itself of HIV. There is no cure for HIV. However, there are medical treatments that prolong the lives of infected persons.
In 1981, the first case of AIDS was reported and in 1984, HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS. In 1994, HIV became the leading cause of death in people ages 25 to 44. Today, HIV/AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Typically there are three stages of HIV/AIDS. The first stage usually occurs two to four weeks after infection. This stage, Acute Infection, has been described as the worst flu ever. Not everyone infected experiences the flu like illness and it can occur up to three months after infection. The person is most infectious during this stage.
The second stage is referred to as Clinical Latency. During this stage, the virus is reproducing at a much slower rate. It is still an active disease and can be transmitted. This stage may last up to 10 years or longer.
Left untreated, the virus progressively weakens the immune system’s ability to fight against opportunistic diseases. These are diseases that occur when the immune system is severely compromised by the virus. The person is in the final stage, AIDS. People diagnosed with AIDS usually survive around three years, but opportunistic disease may reduce survival to one year.
Although scientific advancements in the treatment of HIV have led to longer, healthier lives for infected people, HIV remains a public health crisis. Changing behaviors through education has helped reduce the number of people infected with HIV. However the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there are over 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. Over 50,000 people are infected each year.
An effective vaccine against HIV is still many years away. The CDC is conducting clinical trials using HIV treatment medications to reduce the risk of transmission. Using a combination of two antiretroviral medications daily as a preventive treatment is viewed as one of “the most important new prevention approaches being investigated today.” The approach is called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. PrEP is not a cure nor is it a proven prevention method at this time.
Anyone can be infected with HIV. People who engage in risky sexual behavior or drug use are at greatest risk. If shown to be effective, PrEP will most likely not be a stand-alone prevention. Reducing the number of sexual partners, counseling and testing, using condoms, using sterile syringes along with other prevention measures are all still necessary to reduce the risk of becoming HIV infected.
Of the 1.2 million HIV infected people in the U.S., one in five do not know that they are infected. For information on getting tested, visit the Franklin County Health Department’s website at fchd.org.