In 1984, scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS. HIV causes AIDS by damaging the immune system so severely that it cannot fight off any infection or illness. The disease entered the United States during the 1970s. Every year approximately 56,000 Americans are infected with HIV. Since 1982, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, over a half a million people have died.
HIV is transmitted when HIV-infected blood or bodily fluids are shared. HIV cannot survive for long outside of the body, but it can enter the body through contact with mucus membranes or the bloodstream. HIV is most commonly spread through having unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected partner; injecting drugs using a needle or syringe that an infected person has used; or through pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breastfeeding of an infant with an infected mother. Although it is now less common, HIV can also be contracted through blood transfusions. However, in the United States, screening all donated blood has since prevented contracting the virus through blood transfusions.
Practicing safe sex (using condoms, having fewer partners, and abstaining from sexual activity) is highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV. Avoiding and/or treating other STIs which have been shown to increase the probability of HIV transmission, such as syphilis, will also decrease the chances of contracting HIV. Abstain from recreational intravenous drugs to avoid sharing needles or syringes with infected persons.
HIV/AIDS produces no reliable, discrete symptoms. People infected with HIV or AIDS may feel completely healthy, but their immune systems are damaged. Some people infected with HIV/AIDS suffer brief flu-like symptoms or develop a rash shortly following infection. However, an infected person may not experience symptoms for 7-10 years. If HIV/AIDS goes undiagnosed and the infected person does not undergo antiretroviral treatment, then that person is much more likely to suffer from opportunistic infection symptoms, including fever, weight loss, fatigue, pneumonia, and diarrhea, due to a suppressed immune system. People with HIV can still transmit the virus to others--even if they have no symptoms and even if they do not know they are infected.
HIV/AIDS can be diagnosed using a variety of tests, but the most commonly used test is the HIV antibody test. When a person is infected with HIV, his/her body responds by producing special proteins that fight infection, called antibodies. An antibody test looks for the presence of antibodies in blood, saliva or urine. If HIV antibodies are detected, it means the person is HIV positive and has been infected with HIV. Testing is provided at health clinics, or through specialist HIV/AIDS voluntary counseling.
The main treatment for HIV/AIDS is antiretroviral drug treatment (ART). Although it is not a cure, it can prevent people from becoming ill for many years. These drugs are taken daily and help to reduce the amount of HIV in the body, thereby preventing further weakening of the immune system and allowing the immune system to recover from previous damage. Continuous treatment with newly developed drugs allows millions of people to successfully live with HIV. ARTs often involve taking a combination of drugs, or a “cocktail” of drugs, to decrease HIV’s rate of resistance to ART treatment.
HIV eventually causes an immune system breakdown, which leaves the body vulnerable to germs and infections, and sometimes cancers. Many people with HIV develop AIDS, the advanced stage of HIV. Over time, people suffering from HIV/AIDS may experience symptoms from both the disease itself and side effects from anti-HIV drugs. People with AIDS often experience a change in the way their bodies handle fats and sugars resulting in gain or loss of fat in unusual areas, and can eventually cause them to develop diabetes and heart disease. Ultimately, without aggressive treatment, full blown development of AIDS results in death within 2 years.
Around half of the people who acquire HIV become infected before the age of 25.
Globally, AIDS is the second most common cause of death among 20-24 year olds.
If you or your partner suspect HIV infection, anonymous testing is available in both Roanoke and Charlottesville. Also, confidential testing is available in the Student Health Center.
For further guidelines and information regarding treatment of HIV/AIDS visit cdc.gov or contact the Student Health Center at 540-458-8401.