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HIV fear and stigma

Question: 

I'm 17 years old, and for the longest, I have been taught that HIV develops into AIDS, and eventually you will die from some sort of related complication within 10 years. Yeah, there are meds that will relieve you of the harsh symptoms, but it's a death sentence--you get AIDS, you die--period. Well, today we had some speaker who was HIV positive come to our school to talk about the importance of safe sex. However, what blew me out of my chair was that he said he has been TWENTY SEVEN YEARS INFECTED!

Apparently I have been misinformed, how long does it really take for HIV to progress to AIDS? And most importantly, if there are modern medications that slow it down to 30 years or more before it progresses to AIDS (or maybe even never!), why is there so much panic and stigma about this illness that makes everyone act like it's the bubonic plague? It seems to me that all you need to do is gulp a few fills everyday, and you're good to go! Can someone enlighten me please?

Answer: 

Hi there, Thank you for contacting the AIDS Vancouver Helpline for HIV/AIDS related information. I am impressed to hear that you are asking these important questions and we will do our best to answer them for you.

First, let me go over the course of HIV disease progression with you. In order for there to be an HIV risk, HIV positive fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluids) must come into direct contact with the bloodstream of an HIV negative person. This is mainly through unprotected sexual intercourse and needle-sharing. At the point of infection, HIV enters the bloodstream and begins to multiply. Some people develop mild flu-like symptoms at this point, but for the most part, people can remain asymptomatic for several years. The time it takes to progress to AIDS is variable.

Let's address your comments regarding HIV being a disease that carries a lot of stigma. When HIV/AIDS was first discovered in the 1970s, there was a deep fear of transmission and how it was transmitted. In the 70s, it is true that many people died directly of AIDS because of the lack of knowledge, medical expertise, and HIV medication at that time. However, over the years, HIV has almost progressed to a chronic disease; for people who now have HIV, it is not a death sentence in any way. In fact, many HIV specialists tell their patients they could die of other causes long before they die of HIV. Antiretrovirals, which are the drugs that currently combat HIV, have proven extremely successful, and as the visitor to your school said, it is common to live 20 - 30 years or longer with HIV, as long as you adhere to the medication, maintain a healthy diet, and exercise routine.

The way that HIV progresses to AIDS is mostly due to not maintaining consistent adherence to antiretroviral treatment as per doctor's orders, and maintaining overall health and diet.

The way we detect the progression from HIV to AIDS, is by the presence of 2 or more opportunistic infections. These are infections that occur due to the virus weakening the immune system, such as pneumonia, shingles, or oral thrush.

The stigma and panic around HIV that you are referring to is related to many different things. Firstly, it used to be considered a "gay disease". However, over the years research has shown that no one is exempt from HIV. Additionally, through education and safe sex practices, the rate of infection has dropped dramatically. It is an extremely difficult to contract HIV. The main ways HIV is transmitted is through unprotected sexual intercourse and needle sharing. One of the reasons for the stigma that exists is that people are not aware of this fact. HIV is an extremely weak virus and dies once exposed to air. .

Additionally, we encourage all sexually active individuals to be tested for all STIs including HIV on a regular basis, which can be yearly, biannually, or every few months. We recommend it become part of your health care management.

For further information, feel free to visit our website, which has information on many subjects, and will help you learn more about this subject.

Thank you,

Sandra, AIDS Vancouver Helpline Volunteer