Each year, Dec.1 marks World AIDS Day — a day to raise awareness for the AIDS pandemic, remember individuals who have died from HIV and AIDS, show support for those currently living with HIV/AIDS and celebrate and encourage progress in developing prevention and treatment options.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted infection that is spread through bodily fluids like semen, vaginal or rectal fluids, breast milk and blood. It most often spreads through unprotected sex, but it can also spread through sharing needles; this is especially prevalent among the vulnerable population of individuals suffering with addictions to injection drugs (like heroin, opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine). It is not spread through mucus, saliva, or urine. An acute HIV infection — especially when left untreated — can develop into a chronic HIV infection and, in extreme cases, to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Many people have heard of HIV and AIDS, but not many understand what makes the infection and associated disease so dangerous. HIV is infamous for having an immensely effective infectious mechanism. The virus attacks CD4+ T cells — white blood cells that are critical to the body’s ability to fight infectious diseases. HIV is also a retrovirus, meaning that it utilizes a protein called reverse transcriptase to encode its own viral RNA into the DNA of the host cell. Building HIV’s genetic information into the genome of the infected cell like this is what allows HIV to hijack cellular machinery and multiply. As the infection progresses, CD4+ cells are destroyed and the body loses its ability to fight infection — this condition is characteristic of AIDS.
In the past, HIV and AIDS were regarded as a death sentence. Educational resources regarding HIV and AIDS were scarce, and little was understood about the virus and disease. Many people thought there was nothing they could do to protect against or treat infection, but we now know this is untrue. Most importantly, we understand that using condoms, regularly getting tested for STIs and avoiding sharing needles are tremendously effective ways to prevent contracting HIV.
As dangerous as the virus may be, there is also a multitude of treatment options available today for individuals who become infected with HIV. Although there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, treatments like Antireroviral Therapy (ART) — a regimen of medications — can prevent the infection from progressing and help infected individuals live healthy lives. In some cases, HIV treatment has even been so successful that it has reduced the viral load in a patient’s blood to an amount so low that they cannot transmit the infection to others.
There are also medications that can reduce an individual’s chances of contracting HIV in the first place. Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PEP, is a medication that can protect against HIV infection when taken soon after exposure to the virus — like after unprotected sex. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a similar medication that patients can take daily to reduce their risk of contracting HIV through sex by up to 99 percent. Some medications can even reduce the risk of contracting HIV through injection drug use by at least 74 percent.
The AIDS pandemic has been a threat to public health around the world for decades. Perhaps most memorably, HIV infection swept through the United States in the 1980s and decimated the queer community, particularly in the New York City area. Today, the World Health Organization reports that an estimated 39 million people across the world are living with HIV, and it is well understood that HIV and AIDS disproportionately threaten underdeveloped and medically underserved communities.
Understanding the amount that we do today about HIV transmission, disease prevention and sexual health, there are very few reasons that HIV and AIDS should continue to threaten those with access to comprehensive healthcare. However, stigma around the subject and a lack of resources prevent young sexually active people from being educated about HIV and AIDS. Many young people — most of whom are queer — become infected with HIV because they do not understand the options available to them and the strategies they can employ to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.
Today, remember the millions of people around the world who have died from HIV infection, celebrate the progress that has been made since the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and understand how to protect yourself and others from HIV and AIDS. Young people should remember to use protection, get tested and consider if PrEP or PEP could be useful to you. HIV and AIDS are well understood, and with the tools of modern healthcare at its disposal our generation should be the one to finally end the HIV/AIDS crisis.