Think you know everything about HIV? Let’s make sure.
By Kelly McCann
At the time of this writing, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are considering when to release new statistics that will show a significant increase in the estimated numbers of new HIV infections occurring in our country each year. The folks at the CDC don’t want to release the new information until it can be subjected to intense scientific review for purposes of verification. Once all that happens and the new statistics are released, we will likely see that the estimated numbers of new infections will jump—by 50 percent!
For more than a decade, the CDC has believed the number of new HIV infections among Americans was holding steady at about 40,000 per year. However, the revised estimate will suggest approximately 60,000 new infections occur annually in the U.S. While this new number might be due to an actual increase in the number of HIV infections, most experts believe the increased numbers are due to better data collection and reporting from the states, along with increased rates of HIV testing among citizens. In addition, the increased numbers of new HIV cases may be due to improved scientific techniques that distinguish between longstanding infections and those that are less than six months old.
So, most likely, the new estimate is a more accurate reflection of what’s been going on all along. The moral of the story is that we don’t always know what we think we know.
With that theme in mind, let’s begin the New Year by presenting the basic facts of HIV. You might think you remember everything about HIV, but let’s make sure.
HIV vs. AIDS
For starters, it is important to know the definitions of HIV and AIDS. HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus, the microscopic organism that infects the body and works to destroy the immune system. After a long period of time, the HIV succeeds in depleting the immune system by destroying T cells, a type of white blood cell.
When the infected individual’s T cell count drops below 200 per cubic milliliter of blood, that person will be diagnosed with AIDS. Another way by which an HIV-positive person can receive an AIDS diagnosis is by having one of 26 specific AIDS Indicator Illnesses. These are serious conditions like cancers, tuberculosis, and some rare infections like toxoplasmosis.
Once a person receives an AIDS diagnosis, he will be considered to have AIDS for the rest of his life. Even if his T cell count goes back up to normal or he recovers from pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, he will be considered to have AIDS. The HIV disease progression timeline only moves forward, never backward.
It should be noted that the word “AIDS” strikes fear into the hearts of those persons living with HIV because 20 years ago, an AIDS diagnosis often meant death was approaching. Today, that is not the case. Rather, the AIDS diagnosis is a way for medical professionals to communicate about the history of an individual’s HIV disease. It means that at one point during his HIV infection, the T cell count was below 200 or he contracted an AIDS Indicator Illness.
That’s not to say an AIDS diagnosis should be ignored though. Instead, it should serve as a wakeup call for those infected with HIV, a reminder of the need to take care of oneself, take the medications exactly as prescribed, practice safe sex, and avoid alcohol and drugs. But it does not mean death is imminent. People with AIDS are living for decades following their diagnosis. Remember that.
HIV is transmitted via certain body fluids—blood, semen (and pre-ejaculatory fluid or pre-cum), vaginal secretions, and breast milk. There are a few others too, like synovial fluid and cerebrospinal fluid, but unless you are a medical professional or a serial killer, you will likely never be exposed to those fluids.
HIV does not occur in high enough concentrations to facilitate transmission in saliva, sweat, tears, urine, feces, pus, ear wax, vomit, mucous, or any other pungent, lubricating fluids we humans routinely emit. But remember, blood can be present in these fluids, and if it is, HIV could be transmitted.
In order to become infected with HIV, one must take an infected person’s fluids into his body. That is accomplished by engaging in certain high-risk behaviors, including being born to an HIV-positive mother, sharing needles, and engaging in unprotected sex. You’ll notice that receiving a blood transfusion is not considered a high-risk behavior for Americans due to the HIV screening conducted on blood supplies in the U.S.
We can all reduce our risk for HIV infection by engaging in behaviors that help to reduce our risk. For example, if you are an HIV-positive woman who is pregnant, get good pre-natal care and take antiretroviral medication after your first trimester. That will drastically reduce the chance of passing the virus on to your child.
If you use injection drugs, the best advice I can give you is to get sober. It will drastically reduce your chances of becoming infected with HIV. This is the best choice.
But if quitting is not in the cards for you right now, then please do not share the needle, syringe, or any part of your “works” with anyone. (The same goes for equipment used in piercing and tattooing.) By refusing to share, you completely avoid the risk of HIV infection via this route. This is a good choice.
However, if sharing is inevitable, there is a method recommended for cleaning the syringe. It is referred to as the 3–30–3 method. To do it right, you’ll need six separate cups of water and some bleach. The first step is to draw water into the syringe and flush it out. Do this three times, each time with a new cup of water. The next step involves drawing pure bleach up into the syringe and keeping it there for 30 seconds, making sure to shake it up while it is in there. Finally, since you don’t want to inject bleach into your veins, you complete the cleaning by flushing the syringe with water. Do this three more times, again using a new cup of water for each flush.
Finally, the majority of new HIV infections occurring in the U.S. are the result of unprotected sex, so it is important to know how to protect yourself and your partner when engaging in sexual activity that involves any kind of penetration—oral, vaginal, or anal. Make sure you employ barrier methods such as latex condoms, female condoms, and dental dams because it is important to put something between your mouth, vagina, and/or anus and your sex partner’s genitals. That way, you can share the love without sharing the fluids.
For more information about HIV and AIDS, contact AIDS Foundation Houston at 713/623-6796 or via the web at www.AIDSHelp.org.
Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked 25 years of service. Details: www.aidshelp.org.