Every 9.5 minutes, someone in the United States is infected with HIV. As scary as that sounds, the good news is that the rate of new infections is no longer increasing in this country. This is because of effective prevention programs put in place since the mid-1980s.
Since any good prevention program includes education, I want to help you understand more about HIV and AIDS as part of National HIV Testing Day on Thursday.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. “Deficiency” and words relating to “immunity” are in both names. Your immune system fights off infections and it comes under attack from this virus. If you are infected with HIV and do not get appropriate treatment, it can lead to a deficiency in how your immune system functions. When the virus causes severe deficiency, it is called AIDS.
Initial HIV infection often causes a reaction two weeks to three months after exposure to the virus. Symptoms can include fever, rash, muscle aches, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and ulcers in the mouth. During this time, high levels of HIV in the blood make it is easier to transmit the virus to others, but those who are infected usually do not know it. Not everyone infected with HIV experiences this initial reaction, called primary HIV infection. Regardless of whether someone experiences primary HIV symptoms, he or she may not have any other signs or symptoms of HIV/AIDS for up to 10 years afterward.
During this time, called the latent period, the virus is silently invading and destroying CD4 cells, white blood cells responsible for detecting infection and alerting your immune system. Eventually, there are so few CD4 cells (500–1,000 cells/mm3 is the normal range) that your body no longer has a good defense against infections. Influenza, pneumonia, skin infection and other diseases can now become deadly.
Because people often carry the virus for many years before feeling ill, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all persons aged 15–65 be tested for HIV at least once and that more frequent testing should be done based on risk factors. Talk with your health care provider about how often you should be tested. People who feel and look healthy may have HIV and pass it on to others. The latent period is an important time to start treatment with anti-retroviral drugs that allow a longer life, decrease the amount of virus in your body and reduce the risk of passing on HIV.
In April, I wrote about sexually transmitted infections and the importance of sexually active individuals getting tested regularly as part of staying healthy and preventing the spread of infection. Infection with another STI such as herpes increases your risk of becoming infected with HIV.
Even though treatments are available, prevention is always best and knowing whether or not you or those you love are infected with HIV is crucial. Those who know they are not infected can take steps to prevent becoming infected and those who are infected can take steps to prevent infecting others.
Activities such as casual kissing, hugging and normal sports contact do not transmit HIV. Prevent HIV transmission by using a condom or other barrier consistently and correctly during any type of sexual activity and by knowing your HIV status and your partner’s. Do not share needles or other injection equipment.
Get more information on HIV/AIDS, transmission, prevention, risk factors, treatments, services, prevention research, staying healthy with HIV/AIDS and much more at aids.gov. You can get testing site information specific to your location at locator.aids.gov/.