Today is World AIDS Day, and 2023 marks the 35th year that this day has been observed. World AIDS Day started as a way to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS and to remember those who lost their lives to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. This year, the theme is “Remember and Commit,” urging people to remember those impacted by HIV and AIDS and to commit to end stigma. In Idaho, 171 people have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS since Jan 1, 2020. You can observe World AIDS Day 2023 by learning more about HIV and AIDS.
How HIV is treated and how it’s transmitted
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that affects the immune system and impacts the body’s ability to fight infection. There isn’t a cure for HIV yet, but it is controllable with medication called ART (antiretroviral therapy). ART is offered as daily pills or a shot given every month or every other month. When a person living with HIV is on the right medication for a while, the amount of virus in their blood can become undetectable. An undetectable viral load means the person cannot spread the virus through sexual activity or by carrying or giving birth to a baby.
If a person living with HIV does not get treatment, the infection can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). AIDS can be life-threatening due to the increased likelihood of getting other infections, like certain types of pneumonia or cancer. Because we now have very good medications to treat HIV, fewer people are dying of HIV or AIDS as an underlying cause. As treatments get even better and more people get diagnosed earlier into the illness, the number of deaths will continue to get smaller.
HIV can be spread through contact with bodily fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and from person to person through sexual contact; sharing needles; pregnancy, birth, or chestfeeding; or exposure to blood. It cannot be spread in water, saliva or tears. It also cannot be spread by sharing food, drinks or toilets with people living with HIV. You do not have to worry about getting HIV from holding hands with someone or just spending time with them. Spending time with someone who is living with HIV isn’t dangerous.
Many people who are living with HIV report having symptoms about two to four weeks after getting the virus. The symptoms they experienced are very similar to the symptoms of other illnesses. These symptoms include fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, rash, muscle aches, night sweats, mouth sores, chills and fatigue. Some people don’t remember having any symptoms at all. Because the symptoms of early HIV infection are so much like the symptoms of other illnesses and because not everyone gets symptoms, the only way for someone to know they have HIV is to get tested.
Testing and prevention
Getting tested for HIV is a responsible and empowering decision that can protect both your health and the health of others. Testing for HIV is usually quick and painless. Testing can be done at your health care provider’s office, urgent care facility, an STI clinic or even in your own home. HIV tests can be done as a blood draw, a finger stick, or even a swab on the inside of your cheek. It’s important to know that even though a cheek swab test can detect HIV, the virus can not be spread through saliva. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once, and testing more often can give you a clearer picture of your overall health.
Regular HIV testing is one way to reduce the spread of HIV, as the sooner someone living with HIV starts treatment, the faster they can get to an undetectable viral load. There are medications that can prevent someone from getting HIV if they are exposed. These medications are called PrEP and PEP. PrEP is medication taken as a daily pill or regular injection before someone might be exposed to the HIV virus. PEP is a series of pills given within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus.
Barrier methods (like condoms and oral dams) can be used during sexual activity to help prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs. Birth control methods like the pill or an IUD do not protect against HIV, so it’s important to also use a barrier method during sex. If using substances or taking medications that are done by injection, making sure to use a fresh needle every time (and not sharing needles) can also prevent HIV from spreading. This is also true for tattoos and piercings.
Stigma is an unfair belief held toward a group of people. People living with HIV can face a lot of stigma due to a lack of knowledge or understanding. Stigma can have a significant impact on those who experience it, leading to feelings of shame, discrimination and loneliness. Reducing the stigma around HIV is another important way to reduce the spread of HIV. Stigma can prevent people from getting tested and seeking treatment. Everyone can play a role in reducing stigma by educating themselves and others, speaking out against discrimination and supporting people living with HIV.
World AIDS Day serves as a reminder of the impact of HIV and AIDS on individuals and communities. Through education, advocacy, and action, we can work toward reducing the spread of the virus and ending the stigma and discrimination faced by those living with HIV. Every person can raise awareness, support those affected by the virus, and advocate for a world where everyone has access to prevention, treatment and care. We can all make a positive impact and create a brighter future.
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