You might not have heard as much about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS as you did in the 80's and 90's, but the unfortunate truth is that the disease hasn't disappeared. In fact, in 2016 nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. were newly diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
But there is some good news, too. Doctors and scientists have advanced their understanding and treatment of the disease over the last few decades. Here are the facts you should know about HIV now:
In the U.S., more than 1.1 million people are living with HIV. Even more shocking? One in seven of them doesn't know they’re infected. That's because in its initial stages, HIV spreads very slowly and produces little to no symptoms. You can unknowingly live with HIV in this stage for more than a decade.
In its early stages, HIV is contagious and is actively weakening your immune system. As your immune system becomes less able to defend itself, you become more vulnerable to illness. In fact, people with untreated HIV are four times more likely to develop certain illnesses like cancer and tuberculosis. And, because HIV makes it easier for other diseases to attack your body, it's harder for doctors to discover that HIV is the underlying cause of your sickness.
Another reason HIV thrived undetected is because not everyone gets symptoms when they become infected. Plus, early signs of the virus usually occur two to four weeks after infection and many are similar to the flu: fever, chills, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes.
HIV attacks your helper T-cells, the commanders of your immune system that direct the finding and destroying of germs and cancerous cells. Over time, the virus reduces the number of helper T-cells to dangerously low levels. "It's not HIV that kills you. HIV kills your immunity, and then you become susceptible to all kinds of infections and cancers," says Shanaz Azad, MD, an infectious disease specialist in Olympia Fields, Illinois. Dr. Azad is an independent members of the Franciscan Health medical staff who chooses to practice at a Franciscan Health hospital.
Like most diseases, early diagnosis and treatment of HIV can give you the best chance at a longer, healthier life. Antiretroviral drugs, medications that slow down how fast the virus multiplies, have turned a disease that once seemed hopeless into something that can be managed as a chronic condition, much like diabetes.
"It used to be that an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence," Azad states. “But now we're able to quickly screen and diagnose HIV. If we begin treatment in the early stages of the condition, we can suppress the virus for 20 or 30 years or more."
While scientists continue to search for a cure, the more likely solution may come in the form of a vaccine. Two clinical trials (studies on the effects of treatment in humans) of HIV vaccines are currently taking place. An effective vaccine would prevent people from becoming infected by HIV. Researchers should have the results of both studies by 2021.
"Everybody should be screened, not just high-risk patients," advises Azad. "The disease affects sexually active, heterosexual people, too. The sooner doctors diagnose it, the sooner we can slow down the process of HIV becoming AIDS, which is the terminal stage of the condition."
HIV can be spread from person to person through blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk. (Note that it's not transmitted through urine, saliva, tears or sweat.) Often, people are unknowingly exposed to the disease through previous sexual partners who later find out they have HIV. That's why it's important to get tested and use protection.
Ask your family medicine doctor for an HIV screening. A simple blood test could save your life.