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Breaking the Stigma: 13 Essential Facts About HIV/AIDS

Let’s change the conversation about HIV and AIDS by knowing the difference between fact and fiction.

Breaking the Stigma: 13 Essential Facts About HIV/AIDS

In 1981, a group of researchers and scientists published a report in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) about cases of an uncommon type of pneumonia in gay men. Whether the researchers of that MMWR study realized it or not—the AIDS crisis had begun. 

Since the epidemic started, more than 700,000 people have died from AIDS-related illnesses in the United States. The epidemic has also had a worldwide impact—more than 38 million people had the condition in 2019, reports UNAIDS. For people who have access to the treatments, HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. In fact, treatments can help people live long, healthy lives. 

It has been four decades since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, and while major strides have been made, stigma and misinformation remain. 

Here are the most essential HIV/AIDS facts that everyone should know. 

HIV facts, explained 
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys the body’s CD4 cells or T cells, which usually help fight off infections and diseases. If HIV goes undiagnosed, the number of T cells will decrease.  

The body can’t get rid of this virus, so once you have HIV, you have it for life. HIV develops in stages from the time of infection, but if treated with the proper medications, a person can live healthily for many years with HIV.  

HIV affects roughly 1.2 million Americans, though it’s likely that one person in seven doesn’t know they have it. That said, rates are declining in the U.S. In 2008, 45,700 people were newly diagnosed. By 2018, that number dropped to about 38,000 new HIV cases. 

AIDS versus HIV: The facts about how they are related  
AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV. It typically develops when a person isn’t diagnosed or adequately treated for HIV. It takes, on average, 10 or more years for AIDS symptoms to appear after the initial HIV infection. Poor nutrition, extreme stress and other medical conditions, such as hepatitis C, can cause an earlier AIDS onset. 

Once AIDS develops, the immune system is already severely damaged and unable to protect itself from simple infections, cancers and other immune diseases. Without treatment, most people living with AIDS will only live for about three years. 

What are the symptoms? 
As early as two weeks after exposure, people may develop flu-like symptoms such as a sore throat, rash, fever or chills. During this stage, the virus multiplies rapidly and is most contagious. These symptoms will last for a few weeks. 

After the first stage of infection, HIV then moves into a latency stage when there are no symptoms. More severe symptoms of HIV-caused infections and cancers will likely appear years later. 

Diagnosing HIV 
Typically, the virus is diagnosed through a blood test or by checking your saliva for the virus itself or the antibodies that target it. It’s very important to get tested if you’re having symptoms, or if you’ve had sex or shared needles with someone who is infected. And the CDC recommends all adults between the ages of 13 and 64 have at least one test in their lifetime. 

However, HIV testing will not detect the virus right after exposure. In fact, it may take anywhere from 10 to 90 days, depending on your body and the type of test you take. At-home antibody tests in which you swab fluids from your gums or prick your finger are also available, but you may need your healthcare provider to perform a follow-up test. 

If you think you’ve been exposed, see your healthcare provider right away so you can discuss the option that is best for you. If it’s within 72 hours of exposure, they may recommend post-exposure prophylaxis, medications that may prevent you from becoming infected. 

Treatment options for HIV 
The virus is treated with a mix of HIV medications called antiretroviral therapy, which decreases the amount of the virus in your body. Because of the improvements in HIV drugs, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed, are able to fight off infections and can expect nearly the same longevity as someone without the virus. 

When treated consistently, you can live a longer, healthier life. Taking antiretroviral medicines also reduces the chance of you infecting others and can reduce the chance of a pregnant woman spreading it to her baby. It’s important to be diagnosed and start treatment as early as possible. And once you start treatment, it's imperative you stay on the treatment as instructed by your healthcare provider.  

How is HIV actually spread? 
The virus can be found in the blood, semen and vaginal fluids of a person who is infected with HIV. Having unprotected sex, especially anal and vaginal intercourse, can put you at risk. 

Getting a tattoo or body piercing with contaminated equipment can also pass on the virus, though the CDC says there are no known cases in the U.S. Sharing needles with a drug user can transmit the virus since blood is present in needles and syringes. And a mother who is HIV-positive can transmit it to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or through breastfeeding, especially if she is not receiving HIV treatment. 

Who’s at higher risk? 
Anyone can contract HIV, but there are certain factors that can increase the risk of HIV. 

People living in communities with a high HIV infection rate are more likely to contract the virus from an infected person through sex, or through needle sharing. 

The number of new HIV cases in the U.S. is highest among gay and bisexual men; they account for 70 percent of all new HIV infections. Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Black people have the most cases of HIV. And, transgender women who have sex with men have an increased risk, too. 

Where did HIV come from? 
Experts do know where HIV came from. In fact, the initial spread to humans began in the 1800s. HIV originated from a certain type of chimpanzee in Central Africa. The chimpanzees had a version of the virus called simian immunodeficiency virus that began spreading to humans when humans were hunting them, coming into contact with their blood in the process. Once humans became infected, the virus spread through Africa and other parts of the world, then to the United States by the 1970s. 

Is there a cure for HIV? 
While there is no cure for HIV, it is possible to control the virus with proper medical treatment. As soon as a person starts treatment, they’re not only working towards a longer life for themselves, they are also lowering the chances of the HIV spreading to someone else. 

How can I prevent HIV infection? 
Practicing safe sex is the most effective way to prevent HIV. Unless you and your partner are monogamous and have both tested negative for HIV, use condoms and limit sexual contact with multiple partners. Here are some other ways to prevent HIV: 

  • Avoid sexual practices that could allow HIV-infected fluids, like blood, semen and vaginal secretions, to pass into your body. 
  • Stop using illegal drugs. If you do use them, never share needles with others and always use a disinfected needle. 
  • If you think you’re at risk of contracting HIV, talk to your healthcare provider about the antiviral medication used to prevent infection. 

How can I stay healthy with HIV? 
If you have HIV, maintaining healthy lifestyle habits is important. Here are some ways to live better with HIV: 

  • Eat a healthy diet to boost your immune system, build strength and increase your energy. 
  • Limit alcohol, which can interfere with your treatment. 
  • Since HIV affects your immune system, you’re more at-risk for foodborne illnesses, so make sure your meals are safely prepared and your food is stored safely. 
  • Watch your weight and get regular exercise—but talk with your healthcare provider first to make sure your fitness plan works with your HIV treatment program.  
  • Make sure you’re up-to-date with all of your recommended vaccinations. 

The stigma around HIV/AIDS remains 
HIV-related stigma is still very much a worldwide issue. Some of the same fears surrounding HIV in the 1980s are still prevalent today. Stigma and discrimination are two major barriers to HIV prevention and treatment, reports UNAIDS. They prevent people from seeking information and getting medical care, and discourage people from disclosing their HIV status.  

People living with HIV may experience negativity, prejudice and even abuse as a result of their HIV diagnosis. Many people who don't know the facts about AIDS or HIV still falsely think that: HIV is always associated with death, is only a result of sexual intercourse and that people with HIV deserve consequences for the mistakes they've made. 

If you’re wondering how you can help stop HIV-related stigma, you might first try reading accounts from people living with HIV at Positive Spin. You can also help raise awareness by participating in Let’s Stop HIV Together and World AIDS DayAnother simple way to help: Know the HIV/AIDS facts, so you can have informed discussions with others who may be misinformed. 

4 resources for people living with HIV 
There are so many resources to help people who have HIV, or people who know someone that is infected, including: 

  • If you’re in need of a substance abuse treatment center, visit SAMHSA.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP. 
  • For questions about treatment options, clinical trials related to HIV, support after diagnosis or counseling, AIDSVu has a list of resources to help. 
  • For employment help, The U.S. Department of Labor provides helpful information about working and finding a job when you have HIV. 
  • You cannot be discriminated against for having HIV, be it in work, housing, transportation, health benefits or public accommodation situations. If you feel you’re being discriminated against, file a Civil Rights Complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Medically reviewed in February 2020. Updated in March 2021. 

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