July is HIV awareness month, and it’s important to understand how the disease affects people’s lives. HIV not only carries serious physical effects, but years of stigma and misinformation have led to a social and psychological toll often accompanying diagnosis. It’s impossible to talk about HIV in the US without acknowledging the ramifications of its not-so-distant history.
What is HIV/AIDS?
The CDC describes the virus as “HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).” There is currently no cure for HIV, and once contracted people will have the virus for life. With proper treatment, the virus can be managed and people can now live much longer and healthier lives than they could during the earliest outbreaks. HIV is believed to have infected humans from a chimpanzee, likely in Central Africa, perhaps as early as the 1800s.
The History of HIV/AIDS in the US
HIV/AIDS first cropped up in the early 80’s in gay men in New York and California, who were rapidly developing rare cases of pneumonia and cancer. A similar disease was spreading throughout Uganda. Doctors at the time weren’t aware of what was causing the rapid disease outbreaks, and reported symptoms under many different names.
From early on, the uncertainty and fear surrounding the disease and its rapid spread led to stigma and discrimination towards those who were either HIV positive or assumed to be in a group that was more likely to get HIV. Discrimination was rampant, particularly against homosexual men and intravenous drug users, or anyone else deemed to lead a “risky” lifestyle. People were evicted from homes, barred from schools, and suffered and died without access to treatment. Many LGBT+ community members were refused medical treatment or access to basic resources, whether or not they were HIV positive. Activism took hold and a long fight to raise money for research and to end the unjustified discrimination began. Today, evidence of the long-held stigma towards HIV is present in a lot of the misinformation people believe about HIV and the groups most vulnerable to it. (On Friday, we’ll unpack some of the damaging myths that are still circulated.)
What is it like to have HIV/AIDS now?
After initial infection, many people will develop acute HIV infection and the accompanying symptoms can last a few days to a few weeks. Symptoms are similar to many other illnesses, and they include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, chills, muscle aches, sore throat, rash, and night sweats. However, some people with HIV do not experience the initial symptoms. During this First stage people have high amounts of HIV in their blood and are very contagious.
The second stage is chronic HIV infection, known sometimes as clinical latency or asymptomatic HIV because symptoms often disappear. Without treatment, this stage can last decades, or progress very quickly. People can still transmit the virus in this stage
Finally, the most severe phase of HIV is AIDS. Viral load goes up while CD4 cell count goes down, and people may experience symptoms at this shift once more. At this point, people’s immune system is badly damaged and they are highly susceptible to severe disease infections (known as opportunistic infections.) Without treatment, people who progress to this stage only live on average another three years. However, with treatment many people who contract HIV will never enter this final stage, and instead maintain asymptomatic, chronic HIV.
How does treatment work?
Now, antiretroviral medications make it possible to suppress the viral load of someone with HIV. In fact, the medications often suppress the viral load to below detectable levels. At this point, someone with HIV is no longer likely to transmit the virus to an HIV negative partner.
Upon receiving a diagnosis, treatment should begin as quickly as possible. From this point, many people can reach undetectable viral load levels within six months of treatment.
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