Since the 1980s, HIV has been a major health concern across the globe. People all over the world need to learn about the risks and dangers of the virus. That is especially true in the District, which has the highest lifetime risk of getting HIV and AIDS in the country. Statistics show people living in D.C. have a one in 13 chance of being diagnosed with the disease in their lifetimes. The good news is that there is hope.
Modern medicine is better able to treat HIV, and more information than ever before is available about how to avoid it. World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 is dedicated to teaching people the truth about the disease, but you can learn all year long. Do your part to reduce your risk and increase awareness about HIV and AIDS.
HIV and AIDS
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus attacks the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off diseases. Over time, HIV can destroy the cells in your body that protect you from infections. There is currently no cure for HIV. Once you are diagnosed, you will have the infection for life.
AIDS is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. This is the final stage of HIV. People with AIDS have had their immune systems badly damaged by HIV and are less able to fight infection. They are at higher risk of being diagnosed with other diseases, like pneumonia, the flu, and certain cancers. Without treatment, life expectancy with AIDS is one to three years. Not everyone who has HIV will develop AIDS.
A person can live with HIV for a long time without knowing it. It can take 10 years or more for HIV to become AIDS. During that time, a person may not have any symptoms. With the right medicine, it is possible for someone with HIV to live nearly as long as people who are HIV-negative. The most important factors are being diagnosed early and following your treatment plan.
How HIV spreads
HIV is spread by certain bodily fluids. Blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, breast milk, and vaginal and rectal fluids can all contain the virus. If a person with HIV engages in any activity that exposes those fluids, he or she could spread the infection. The two most common ways people get the virus are through sexual contact and drug use with shared needles.
Sexual activity: Unprotected sex with an infected person is one of the most common causes of HIV infection. Most of the fluids that carry the virus can be exposed during sexual activity. If those fluids are able to enter the other person’s body, the virus may spread. Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual behavior, followed by vaginal sex. It is rare but not impossible to get HIV through oral sex. Using condoms and practicing safe sex can greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
Drug use: Sharing needles or syringes can lead to the spread of HIV. Blood and other bodily fluids can stay in the needle and pass from one person to another. Even if the needle has not been used recently, it could still contain the virus. HIV can live for up to 42 days in a used needle.
In addition, there are some less common ways to contract HIV. For example, HIV-positive women can pass on the virus to their children through birth. Blood transfusions, being bitten by a person with HIV, or contact between open wounds and HIV-infected fluids can also spread the virus. While it is possible to get the disease from one of these methods, they all are rare.
Some groups are at a higher risk to get HIV. Statistics show you may be at a higher risk if you are:
• Gay, bisexual, or a man who has sexual contact with other men;
• African-American; or
• Hispanic or Latino
If you are not in one of these groups, you still could be at risk. No matter your risk level, taking steps to stay safe can reduce your risk of infection.
Prevention and treatment
There are many things you can do to prevent the spread of HIV. And if you have the virus, there are treatment options available.
• Practice safe sex: Using condoms correctly every time you have sex can greatly reduce your risk of getting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Reducing the number of sexual partners you have can also lower your risk. You can avoid certain activities, like anal sex, which carry a higher risk than others.
• Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): PrEP is a medicine that can lower the chance of getting HIV in a person who is at high risk. The medicine can stop the virus from taking root and spreading in a person. PrEP is not for everyone, and is reserved only for certain high-risk people. For example, if you are HIV-negative but have a partner with HIV, you may be eligible for PrEP.
• Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP): This medicine is for people who may have recently been exposed to HIV. It can prevent infection after a recent exposure. It must be taken as soon as possible if you think you are at risk. PEP is for emergency use only, up to 72 hours after exposure. If you think you have been exposed to HIV due to unsafe sex, drug use, or sexual assault, contact your health care provider right away.
• Antiretroviral therapy (ART): If you have been diagnosed with HIV, there is still hope. There are medicines you can take called ART, which can help manage the virus. By taking medicine, taking care of your body, and getting help from your provider, it is possible to live a healthy life with HIV.
Be tested, be safe
There is no way to know if you have HIV without being tested. Just because you feel fine does not mean you don’t have the virus. People with HIV may not show any symptoms for years. During that time, they could accidentally spread the virus to others without knowing. This is why having an HIV test is so important.
You have many options for being tested in the District. To find a testing center near you, you can:
• Visit gettested.cdc.gov
• Text your ZIP code to KNOW IT (566948)
• Call 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
These testing options are confidential. No one will know you were tested or your status.
Whether you have HIV or not, you should always practice safe sex. Using a condom every time you have sexual contact is important in stopping the spread of the disease. There are resources for free condoms available in the D.C. area. Go to www.rubberrevolutiondc.com to learn more.
If you have questions or concerns, AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia is here to help. You can contact our Member Services department at any time if you have questions or need help making an appointment. Call us at 1-866-842-2810.
Know the myths about HIV
There are a lot of false ideas out there about HIV and AIDS. Sometimes it is hard to know if something is real or just a rumor. Get the facts about HIV here and help spread the truth.
The myth: You can get HIV/AIDS by being around someone with the disease.
The truth: You can’t get HIV by hugging, shaking hands, or touching someone with the disease. You also cannot get it from breathing the same air, sharing a toilet, or touching the same objects like doorknobs.
The myth: You can catch HIV from mosquitoes.
The truth: It is not possible to get HIV from mosquitoes, ticks, or other insects.
The myth: You can tell someone is HIV-positive by looking at him or her.
The truth: The only way to tell if someone has HIV or AIDS is through an HIV test.
The myth: Straight people cannot get HIV.
The truth: All people, regardless of sexual orientation, can get HIV.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Preventions, AIDS.gov
All images are used under license for illustrative purposes only. Any individual depicted is a model.