The mere mention of HIV/AIDS can elicit a strong reaction. Since its discovery in the early 1980s, this sexually transmitted infection (STI) continues to face greater stigmatization due to the populations most at-risk and headline-induced fear.
And though effective treatments exist, sometimes people do not seek out treatment or fully understand the virus’s impact. Our communities need more awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS and its effects on our health and wellbeing—without fear of discrimination.
Every year, on December 1, World Aids Day seeks to raise awareness of the changing landscape of HIV/AIDS across the globe and to reverse misconceptions about the virus itself. The more we know about HIV/AIDS, the more we can contribute to conversations about ending the stigma and help educate others (and ourselves) about its risks.
AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, attacks the body’s white blood cells that protect against illness and infection. A healthy adult has between 500-1,600 white blood cells per cubic millimeter at any time circulating throughout the bloodstream. AIDS develops when your white blood cell count per millimeter falls below 200, and your body’s immune system can no longer fight off the smallest infection.
Once someone contracts HIV/AIDS, they have the virus for life. But no one simply “gets” AIDS. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, can pass from person to person through an exchange of body fluids. The term HIV often encompasses all four stages of the virus, of which AIDS is the fourth and final stage.
Most often, a person becomes infected through unprotected sex or sharing needles with someone who is HIV-positive. HIV must penetrate a mucous membrane to pass between people. You cannot contract HIV through touch or other materials. Without treatment, HIV can progress to AIDS within 10 or more years. With treatment, people with HIV can live close to average life expectancy.
Anyone can contract HIV regardless of age, sexual orientation, relationship status, or gender. Women who have vaginal sex with a male partner without protection are most at risk for HIV. In 2019, 19% of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. were women.
It’s also important to remember that breast milk is a bodily fluid that can transfer HIV from a mother to a baby. However, the risk of transmission diminishes dramatically through medication. That said, pregnancy can also impact a woman’s ability to take certain medications for HIV, and birth control can also reduce the effectiveness of HIV treatments.
The risk of HIV transmission also increases among post-menopausal women. During and after menopause, your vaginal lining becomes more thin and dry and, as a result, more susceptible to viruses like HIV. And, though advancements are underway, much is still unknown about HIV’s impact on women’s health, as women remain inadequately represented in HIV/AIDS research studies.
Not only does incorrect information about our health harm our ability to protect ourselves, but it also inhibits someone’s ability to seek and receive proper treatment. Awareness is one of the most powerful tools to help reduce the stigma and can help more people request testing and preventative care.
Thanks to new, life-saving treatments and medicine, most people with HIV in the U.S. today do not develop AIDS. For people most at-risk, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) helps prevent an HIV infection. If someone is unsure about a recent exposure, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) functions similarly and stops the infection.
The most well-known medication for HIV, however, is antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART suppresses the amount of virus in your bloodstream. Having an “undetectable viral load” through continued use of ART means that HIV no longer appears on viral load blood tests.
Studies show someone who maintains an undetectable amount of HIV cannot pass the virus to their partner through sexual intercourse. Researchers refer to this status as undetectable = untransmittable, or U=U. Partners of people with HIV can also take additional steps to protect themselves from the virus by taking PrEP and always using a condom.
Between the discovery of AIDS in the early 1980’s and the development of ART in 1996, people with HIV/AIDS did not live long due to the progressive nature of the virus. But that is no longer the case. In 2020, a presentation at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) cited research that proves people living with HIV who begin ART have the same life expectancy as people without HIV.
Thanks to improving medication and treatment, people with HIV now live much longer but do have a higher likelihood of contracting additional conditions or diseases due to weak immune systems.
Using a condom is one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk (and your partner’s) for HIV/AIDS. If you’re also using lubricant, make sure it’s condom compatible, like Mia Vita Personal Lubricant & Moisturizer. Because the lubricant is water-based, it decreases the likelihood of skin tearing and a condom breaking.
Testing both protects and saves lives, but many women avoid getting tested for HIV (and other STIs) due to the stigma they carry. As a result, HIV can remain undetected in some women for years. Women may also assume symptoms of HIV are that of a different condition. Catching the virus in its earlier stages improves life expectancy and how quickly it progresses.
Transparency and communication are also key to protecting yourself and others from contracting HIV. Open conversations about your status and risk factors can protect both your and your partner’s health.
World AIDS Day highlights the need for improved education and awareness about this preventable and treatable virus. Greater support for progress within HIV/AIDS research, innovative treatments, and reduced stigmatization are vital and within reach. It’s time we do our part to not only protect our health but also help others get the treatment they need.