HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, attacks the body’s immune system, stopping the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. HIV is found in four body fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Infection is only possible by coming into contact with one of these four fluids and the infected fluid getting into the body (blood stream).
Once inside the body, HIV attacks the immune system by attaching to white blood cells — also called CD4 cells or T-cells. Once HIV enters the cell, it makes more copies of the HIV virus. The new copies of HIV virus kill the cell as they go out into the body to find more white blood cells and repeat the process.
Over time, damage to the immune system progresses and makes it harder to fight off common illnesses like a cold or the flu. Left untreated, the body’s immune system continues to weaken such that it is no longer able to fight disease and infection.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS, is a medical diagnosis given when the progression of HIV has severely damaged the immune system. AIDS is not a new or separate virus.
Overall, rates of HIV have steadily declined in the U.S. over the past several years. However, in Black and Latino men who are engaged in sexual contact with other men, these rates have increased. Black men account for 44 percent of new HIV cases, but they make up only 12 percent of the overall population. An estimated 471,500 Black men and women live with HIV in the United States, and 15 percent of those people who have HIV may be unaware of their status.
Twenty-four percent of new HIV cases occur within the Latino population. It is estimated that 17 percent of the population in the U.S. is Latino. Twenty-one percent of new HIV cases occurred in youth ages 13-24.
One of the most common ways to contract HIV is through anal sex. HIV can also be transmitted through vaginal sex, and although less likely, through oral sex. An STD such as herpes, chlamydia, syphilis or gonorrhea may cause changes in the tissue of the vagina or penis that make it easier for HIV to be passed while having sex.
Although most people get HIV through unprotected sex, another major method of transmission is sharing needles when using injectable drugs. Having multiple sexual partners or having sexual relations with someone who has sex with multiple partners can also increase your risk of exposure to the HIV virus and other STDs.
The correct use of a condom during each sexual encounter is the best way to prevent the sexual spread of HIV. Almost half of high school students report that they do not use condoms consistently, and of those, about 10 percent have had more than four sexual partners.
If you believe that you or your partner has been exposed to HIV, there are medications called post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, that can reduce the risk of HIV establishing infection. There is also a medication for HIV-negative people called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP that will reduce the risk of contracting HIV during sex or through use of injectable drugs.
Additionally, there have been many advances in the treatment of HIV since the 1980s. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a combination of medications that prevents the reproduction of the HIV virus. Once thought to be a “death sentence,” HIV is now seen as a manageable illness as long as it is being treated. When taking the right medication as prescribed, a long, healthy life can be expected, and the risk of developing AIDS decreases significantly.
It is not uncommon for individuals to avoid going to the doctor for fear that they may have some disease or condition. With HIV testing, the fear is multiplied by stigma, lack of emotional support, and concerns about rejection.
A shortage of education about HIV is one of the barriers that prevent people from being tested. There is also misinformation and sometimes confusing messaging about HIV and available treatment. There is a history of distrust of the medical system in African American communities, and this also is a barrier to testing and treatment.
Although poor access to health care is often considered a barrier, here in Minnesota, there are many options for free testing. At NorthPoint, we are committed to helping those communities of color hardest hit by the HIV virus, and testing is available. We offer free walk-in HIV testing and education on risk factors, prevention risk factors, and treatment. NorthPoint can also provide connection to care for those newly diagnosed with HIV or already living with HIV but not receiving treatment.
For more information about NorthPoint’s HIV prevention programs, call 612-543-2500 and ask for Family Planning.
William Grier, community health specialist, contributed to this column.
Dr. Deirdre Golden, director of behavioral health at NorthPoint Health & Wellness, welcomes reader responses to 612-543-2705.