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Why You Shouldn’t Forget about This Other Epidemic: HIV

a man outside thinking about the HIV epidemic

Everywhere you turn these days, there are constant reminders of the COVID-19 global pandemic. People are scared. Misinformation spreads. And sometimes, it feels like we’ll never get through this crisis.

But not long ago, the world faced another public health crisis. You may no longer think much about this virus unless you are personally impacted – the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

The HIV Epidemic

This epidemic fueled headlines, bias, misinformation, and fear in the 1980s when it became clear that HIV was infecting or killing millions of people. But just because you don’t hear much about HIV these days doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

Let’s take a look at this global epidemic, still affecting approximately 38 million people worldwide today. Your focus may be on the current pandemic, but this other virus shouldn’t be ignored.

The Early Days of HIV

In 1981, news initially spread about what was referred to as a sort of “cancer” affecting young gay men in New York and Los Angeles. Like COVID-19, misinformation about the virus spread like wildfire. And because of HIV’s association with the LGBTQ community, the virus was highly stigmatized.

In time, medical experts determined that HIV epidemic could infect all members of the population, not just the LGBTQ community. In addition to spreading through sexual contact, a person could contract HIV from infected drug needles or blood transfusions.

By the 1990s, the government, news media, and schools made it clear that everyone was potentially at risk of contracting HIV. They educated the public about the dangers of HIV and how to prevent its spread. The best way to prevent HIV is:

This was a new normal to navigate, in some ways similar to the situation we face today.

But thanks to research and the development of effective drug therapies, the outlook for people with HIV has changed over the years. In 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death in 25-44 year olds. But then death rates began to rapidly decline once drug therapies were developed and became widely available.

HIV Signs and Symptoms

The HIV virus consists of three stages:

  1. Acute HIV infection
  2. Chronic HIV infection
  3. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

When individuals are first infected with HIV (stage 1), they may experience flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all.

During stage 2, which can last for a decade or longer, the HIV virus is still active in the body but reproduces at low levels. Because it’s possible to have no symptoms, getting tested is critical if you think you might be at risk. The virus can spread during this stage.

However, studies show that regular antiretroviral therapy (ART) reduces the virus to undetectable levels. This means people cannot transmit HIV to a partner during sex.

Those who reach stage 3, AIDS, have such compromised immune systems that they may easily contract other severe illnesses, making them very sick or leading to death.

Need to Get Tested?

Are you or your partner noticing symptoms? Talk with your providers about getting tested.

Treatment and Prognosis

Today’s outlook for HIV patients is mostly positive. Antiretroviral therapy can slow the progression of the virus so infected individuals never reach the final stage. And it can make it less likely that they’ll spread the virus.

Through treatment, HIV-positive individuals can lead healthy and productive lives. Both AIDS-related deaths and virus transmissions through sex or from pregnant women to their babies have dropped significantly because of ART. Though there is still no cure for HIV, researchers are getting closer to finding one.

Why We Shouldn’t Forget About This Epidemic

Right now, our primary focus may be on COVID-19, but it’s important to remember that there are other viruses that have come before this one. And that are still affecting millions of people around the world. Although the timeline is always different, researchers are learning more and more about how to treat and prevent the spread of HIV.

The future looks promising for those currently living with HIV. As with any virus, the key is knowing what to do to protect yourself as much as possible. If you do have the virus, knowing when to get tested, the symptoms to look out for, and when to seek treatment is critical to staying healthy.

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