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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Phillips

Breaking the Silence: Unraveling the Reality of HIV/AIDS


A little boy wearing a blue tee shirt who is pointing out his missing tooth.

Night sweats, a fever, and fatigue are just a few of the earliest symptoms of HIV. Since these common symptoms can be confused with the flu or another illness, can you truly be sure if you are negative for HIV? Without proper education and awareness of how to protect yourself, you may have just had a moment of panic if you haven't had a recent test. This guide will walk you through what you need to know about HIV/AIDS to protect yourself from contracting the virus and what you can do if you are living with it.


A Brief Overview of HIV/AIDS

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. People with HIV who do not treat the virus may develop AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). When the AIDS pandemic first became a topic of news in the United States, it was unclear how one might contract HIV, who the virus attacked, and how to remain protected against it. The only apparent thing was that people were dying rapidly.


The first reported cases of HIV in the United States was in 1981. Five homosexual men reported an aggressive case of pneumonia that would later show weakened immune systems that no amount of prescriptions or treatments could help improve. All five men would later pass away during the same time that other rare and aggressive cancer cases were popping up in different parts of the country. While the two seemingly unconnected types of illnesses would appear to have nothing in common, scientists determined that HIV was the leading cause of weakened immune systems in all of these cases. Over six months, there were 337 reported cases, with a third of them dead. Americans were terrified.


The Importance of Raising Awareness About HIV/AIDS

Through careful medical testing, doctors discovered how HIV could spread, who would be at most risk of getting HIV, and what measures one can take to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Through raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, we are better able to educate everyone about what HIV and AIDS do to people and how to prevent the spread of the virus.


Currently, the state of Florida is the third highest state in the country for HIV-positive cases. While the highest cases predominately come from south Florida, as of 2022, in DeSoto County, the rate per 100,000 population of Persons With HIV (PWH) was 445.8 compared to Florida at 557.9 for all modes of exposure and age groups.


The best way to decrease the number of positive cases in our counties and our state is by educating the public and raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. Without those two components, those cases will only increase over time, leading to our state becoming the number one location for our country.


Understanding HIV/AIDS

HIV is a virus that attacks and destroys the body’s T-cells that fight off infections, making the person carrying HIV susceptible to contracting other viruses and illnesses. HIV mimics the T-cells and takes over the person’s body. Because there is no cure for HIV, if you get the virus, you will have it for the rest of your life. Through advancements in medicine, we now have medications that people living with HIV may take to extend their life expectancy. However, when HIV first developed, patients with HIV were dying rapidly.


While some, but not all, patients develop AIDS, AIDS is the last stage of HIV, often leading to death. Fortunately, our medical professionals have developed effective medications to help persons with HIV live longer and more fruitful lives than even those who had access to drugs like AZT in the 1990s. It is important to note that while having HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, it is still not something to take lightly.


Contracting HIV

Since it is a lifelong illness that can be passed on to others if not careful, it is imperative to understand how you might contract HIV and what preventative measures you can take.

HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from people living with HIV, such as blood, breast milk, semen, and vaginal secretions. HIV can also be transmitted during pregnancy and delivery to the child. People cannot become infected through ordinary day-to-day contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing personal objects, food, or water.


Behaviors and conditions that put people at greater risk of contracting HIV include:

  • having condomless anal or vaginal sex;

  • having another sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and bacterial vaginosis;

  • engaging in harmful use of alcohol and drugs in the context of sexual behavior;

  • sharing contaminated needles, syringes, and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs;

  • receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions, tissue transplantation, and medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing and

  • experiencing accidental needle stick injuries, including among health workers.

Despite what one might assume about being susceptible to contracting HIV, sexually transmitted diseases do not discriminate against ages, sexes, cultures, religions, or sexual preferences. It is through unprotected measures that one might be at risk for getting HIV. So, how do you ensure you protect yourself from getting HIV?


Preventing HIV

HIV is a preventable virus that, with the proper protection and precautions, can help stop the spread of the disease. One of the easiest methods to prevent the spread of HIV is to use protection when engaging in sexual activity. Because HIV can spread by reckless sexual engagement, it’s imperative to remind you about the benefits of using protection such as condoms. Condoms not only protect you from HIV/AIDS but other STIs and unwanted pregnancies.


Another method for protecting yourself from the spread of HIV/AIDs is to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV every time you engage in sexual activities with a new partner. Even if you are being careful, your partner may not be. If you suspect that you may have become exposed to HIV/AIDS, it is best to get tested as soon as possible. Some doctors recommend antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), including oral PrEP and long-acting products such as dapivirine vaginal rings and injectable long-acting cabotegravir.

ARVs may also be helpful to prevent mothers from passing HIV to their children. People taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) and who have no evidence of the virus in their blood will not pass HIV to their sexual partners. Access to testing and ART is an integral part of preventing HIV.


Conclusion

Even though HIV is not as newsworthy as it once was, it is still a virus that plagues an estimated 39 million people worldwide as of 2022. It is only through proper education and awareness that we can be hopeful for the number of HIV-positive cases to decrease in the coming years. With our state ranking number three in the nation for HIV-positive patients, we must help spread awareness of the virus and the methods to protect ourselves against it. With your help, we can increase awareness and decrease the number of cases. For more information on how to find local resources for clinics, testing sites, or doctors, contact one of our trained Community Health Workers today!

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