“HIV/AIDS has no boundaries.” – Annie Lennox
What’s the problem?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were approximately 34 million people living with HIV in 2011. Along with serious health consequences, HIV comes with a wave of stigma and discrimination. Especially in the United States, the fight to end the spread of HIV is intertwined with the fight for social justice. Several myths about HIV have circulated around the public sphere after the media coined the acronym GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) in the early 1980s. However, even after the CDC realized that GRID was in fact non-existent since the sickness was not isolated to one community, people ran with the original stereotype. Unfortunately, the finish line to end the spread of HIV is nowhere in sight! One of the problems is that there is a lack of truth and education around HIV.
What is HIV?
Contrary to the widespread belief, HIV is not a disease. It is a virus – but a pretty serious one. Our bodies are able to fight off other viruses like the common cold, but for some reason, we just can’t rid our bodies of HIV. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Our immune system is comprised of various types of cells, each having special roles to fight off infections. HIV attacks one such cell, the CD4 cell. The higher your CD4 cell count, the stronger your immune system is and the better you are at fighting infections. HIV attacks our CD4 cells by entering them and becoming part of their life cycle. Think of…mind control. When HIV takes over a CD4 cell, it no longer thinks it is a CD4 cell. When the CD4 cell (with its brain taken over by the virus) tells itself to ‘replicate,’ HIV replicates. This leads to an increase in HIV, a decrease in CD4, and a compromised immune system. If the CD4 cell count drops significantly, an individual has AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. HIV may or may not lead to AIDS, so HIV and AIDS are not the same thing, as commonly perceived.
Image from http://aids.gov
Who gets HIV?
Given that HIV can be transmitted through sex, contaminated sharp instruments or breastfeeding, almost all individuals are at risk. HIV transcends geographic, socioeconomic, political, racial, and gender boundaries, to name a few! Some individuals have a higher risk than others depending on how often they are exposed to the following five fluids of HIV transmission: blood, vaginal fluid, semen, precum (pre-ejaculate), and breast milk. Yes, even breast milk.
A person’s sexual network (a group of people one individual is connected to through sexual contact), which may be influenced by race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, may also influence his/her/zir risk for contracting HIV. Think of it in terms of probability! For example, let’s say Person A is an African American man who has sex with other men, and Person B is a White man who does not have sex with other men. Person A has a smaller number of potential sexual partners than Person B. In other words, Person A has a smaller sexual network. In terms of numbers, this means that if someone in Person A’s network becomes infected with HIV, he has a higher chance of also becoming infected even if he engages in the exact same level of “risky sexual behavior” as Person B.
HIV Prevention and Treatment
The key to prevention is education. With a lack of education about the truth, millions of individuals become infected because they believe HIV is only a black/gay ‘disease’. In reality, these communities have high infection rates due to historical inequitable access to care and modern institutions that keep these communities at a lower socioeconomic status and maintain this unequal access. One treatment, ART (antiretroviral therapy), involves drugs that help HIV-positive individuals lead relatively normal, healthy lives by raising CD4 counts to the point where some individuals become ‘undetectable’ for HIV. Unfortunately not everyone can afford ART.
Other than breaking down myths (which the Center for Aids Research is excellent at doing!), we need to educate young individuals about the risks of sexual transmission BEFORE they put themselves in high-risk situations. Adolescents can be educated about practicing safe-sex by teaching them the five fluids of HIV transmission and proper condom-use, as they are the ONLY way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections. By encouraging them to frequently get tested, it will become a regular part of healthy relationships. With an early education, these individuals will lead healthier lives and educate their partners. This cascade effect can educate future generations about the risks and truths about HIV. I cannot do this alone!
Together, we must join the movement for HIV prevention through education and awareness. To join this movement, share this blog post to promote the truth.
For more information on HIV and AIDS, see the CDC page at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/index.html