When HIV/AIDS first hit this nation in large numbers, ignorance reigned and panic ensued. U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, was determined that we counter fear with facts and mailed key HIV/AIDS information to every household in the U.S.
Since those early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s we have made tremendous progress. Still, in the U.S., 47,000 people are infected with HIV each year. In Orange County, 1,320 people were diagnosed with HIV infection between 2011 and 2013. That’s 37 cases per 100,000 people, significantly above the state rate of 27. In Seminole, 160 people had HIV in the same time period; with a rate of 12.5. In 2013, almost 300 people in Orange and Seminole counties had AIDS, the later manifestation of HIV infection. Both Orange and Seminole counties had more cases of HIV and AIDS than all the cases of hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tuberculosis, measles, rubella, whooping cough, and meningitis combined.
The good news is that while there is no cure and no vaccine for the HIV infection, prompt treatment can turn this deadly disease into a chronic disease. Timely anti-retroviral treatment (ART) can help at every stage of the disease, slowing, or even preventing, progression to the next stage.
HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus, a mighty microbe that attacks the immune system. The immune system is your body’s defense against any infection.
HIV is spread through body fluids, such as blood and intimate contact. It is not spread through casual contact, such as being in the same room as someone who is infected, breathing the same air as someone who carries the virus, or by touching toilet seats or doorknobs. You cannot get HIV from water fountains nor from exercise equipment at the gym. You cannot get HIV from hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with an HIV-positive person. It is not spread through mosquitos. The most common ways HIV spreads are through sex and used needles. You cannot tell who has HIV by looking at the person, especially since one out of seven people with the virus do not know they have it.
The virus can replicate rapidly once it has entered a new host. Symptoms similar to the flu – headache, body aches, fatigue, and nausea – may occur two to four weeks after the initial infection but many people have no symptoms for years.
The HIV virus destroys the immune system, depleting the body’s ability to fight infections. Infections rare in those with healthy immune systems can take advantage of the opportunity to attack someone with an immune deficiency, someone without strong defenses. These destructive “opportunistic” infections include rare fungal, bacterial or viral diseases in the lungs, brain, eyes, or stomach. With depleted immunity and opportunistic infections, the HIV infection has progressed to AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The dramatic weight loss and muscle wasting, chronic diarrhea, respiratory problems, blindness, and dementia that occurs with AIDS are the damage of opportunistic infections the body can no longer resist.
The sooner a person knows he or she is infected and starts treatment, the better his or her chances of keeping the infection off its destructive path. To find free HIV tests near you, enter your zip code at gettested.cdc.gov. Get more information at aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics
Nancy Rudner Lugo is a nurse coach and president of Health Action (www.healthaction.biz), offering workplace wellness and health consulting services.