LSU CASH’s Workshop Coordinator and volunteer writer, Megan McKone, gives a rundown of HIV and AIDS as well as how we can break the stigma surrounding them.
HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus. Both men and women can contract HIV or AIDS, although it has been particularly associated with the gay and bisexual community, straight women and straight men may still have HIV passed onto them.
There is a lot of stigma around HIV and AIDS, which largely stems from the amount of gay men who had tested HIV or AIDS positive. HIV/AIDS patients were often refused treatment due to male homosexuality being illegal. Black and Hispanic individuals also have a greater risk of catching HIV. In 2019 38 million people were estimated to have HIV globally, in the same year 690,000 died from AIDS, compared to 1.1 million deaths in 2010. HIV/AIDS is a global epidemic, and it is important to maintain healthy sexual habits to prevent the spread. Testing is vital to protecting you and others.
What is HIV?
HIV damages the immune system, it makes it difficult for the body to fight off infections, even infections such as the common cold. If left untreated then HIV can lead to AIDS. It is incredibly important to have regular STI checks, HIV cannot be cured but it can be effectively managed and those who are HIV positive can still live to near-normal lifespan. An early diagnosis is important to prevent transmitting HIV on to others. If you have tested positive for HIV it is important to inform any past and future partners that you have unprotected sex with.
Who gets HIV?
The largest proportion of HIV sufferers are gay and bisexual males. However, this does not mean that HIV is a gay disease. Women, and any other genders for that matter, can still contract HIV from having sex and sharing bodily fluids with anyone who is HIV positive. Anyone can contract HIV from sharing needles.
The Science of HIV
First the virus attaches to a cell, it then fuses and transforms its genetic material from RNA into DNA, it the inserts this DNA the host cell. Once the DNA is in the host cell, it begins to make its own proteins and more viral cells are produced, these go on to infect more cells in the immune system.
1 in 7 people who have HIV are unaware, this is because HIV is often undetectable for years without regular testing. Between two and six weeks after the initial infection an individual may have flu like symptoms for around two weeks, but this is the only indication of possible HIV. This why regular testing is imperative!
What Causes HIV and How Is It transmitted?
As there is not yet a cure for HIV, prevention is important. HIV transmission can be prevented by having regular STI checks, using condoms for any form of penetrative sex, whether that be anal, vaginal, or oral. HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva, urine or sweat, it is spread via other bodily fluids such as blood, semen, anal fluid, vaginal fluid and breast milk. HIV is commonly passed on through having anal or vaginal sex without a condom. HIV can be transmitted during oral sex, although transmission rate is relatively low, a dental dam or condom can help to prevent this method of transmission. It is important to thoroughly clean sex toys and if using a condom, use a new condom for each time the toy is being inserted into another individual, as HIV can also be passed on by residual body fluids on sex toys. You cannot get HIV from kissing. Sharing needles is another way to contract HIV, babies can also become HIV positive during pregnancy, breast feeding or birth if the mother is HIV positive. Effective treatment and diagnosis can help to prevent passing HIV onto the baby. A common misconception if that you can get HIV from toilet seats, this is not the case.
Those who are HIV positive and have been having treatment, cannot pass HIV on during sex if the viral load has been undetectable for more than six months, this will be confirmed by blood tests and a doctor.
How does HIV lead to AIDS?
HIV kills T cells, which are cells that fight off infections, when HIV kills too many T cells it develops into AIDS. Without medication it could take around ten to twelve years before an individual with HIV develops AIDS. Those with AIDS often develop serious infections or diseases such as pneumonia or cancer which is what ultimately can lead to death.
HIV and AIDS have a lot of stigma surrounding them. You would not shame someone for having a lifelong condition such as diabetes so why would you shame someone for having HIV or AIDS? It is important to break the stigma and keep conversations about HIV and AIDS going in order to increase awareness of how to prevent HIV/AIDS and to normalise getting tested frequently to help those who may be HIV positive without knowing it be diagnosed.
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Featured header image designed by Christos Alamaniotis.