The New Reality of HIV

by Leo Cartland
test tubes of blood samples for HIV testing and screening

Research on HIV has made great strides in the past few decades. The reality of what it means to be HIV positive is very different from what it used to mean. As a result, facts and statistics about HIV and AIDS that were once true are no longer the case.

The transmission risk can be at virtually zero percent.

For a long time, the transmission risk was always high and there was very little you could do reduce the risk. Proper condom use helped, but it was still a general rule that people who were HIV positive would only have sex with other people who were also HIV positive. However, recent medical advances have made it possible to significantly limit transmission risk. HIV medication that will reduce the amount of virus in the body can reduce the risk of transmission.

If the medication works properly, the virus should be completely undetectable, which means that it is highly unlikely that it will be transmitted to someone else. Evidence suggests that, in people who have an undetectable viral load, the risk of transmission is about at close to zero percent as you can possibly get. With condom use on top of the HIV medication, there is basically no way that the virus could spread.

HIV does not necessarily shorten your lifespan.

diverse group of people holding red ribbon for HIV on the palms of their handsWith the right treatment, the average life expectancy of people with HIV is almost the same as everyone else’s life expectancy. Being HIV free may only increase your lifespan by a few months. However, people with HIV still do have a higher chance of experiencing certain health concerns that could potentially lead to a slightly earlier death, including heart disease. Therefore, your risk of having a life threatening heart attack or stroke doubles if you have HIV. However, the fact that heart disease is common in HIV patients means very little when comparing their lifespan to the average lifespan because heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States whether you have HIV or not.

Furthermore, heart disease is easy to prevent among HIV patients or anyone else as long you live a healthy lifestyle. All you really have to do is quit smoking, limit alcohol intake, exercise often, maintain a healthy diet, and control your blood pressure.

The medication is actually extremely manageable.

When scientists first figured out how to treat HIV, patients would have to take a ton of drugs that had a bunch of side effects. Back then, you might have experienced pain, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Today, medications are much more manageable. You probably only need to take one tablet a day because all the necessary antiretroviral therapy properties can come in a single pill. The medications also have very few side effects.

If the disease progresses a little further, you might have to take some more medication, but as long as you catch it early, there is a good chance the HIV will never progress. After all, the medication is responsible for making your virus undetectable, which means that there are so few viruses floating around your bloodstream that a simple blood test probably will not be able to pick it up. As a result, there is almost no chance that the disease will ever progress to the point where you would have to take more than one pill per day. The only real way that it could progress is if you stop taking your medication. However, since there are usually no side effects of the medication, very few people do stop taking it.

You do not have to be gay or a drug user to get HIV.

It is true that gay men and drug users account for many of HIV cases. Drug users have a high chance of getting HIV if they use drugs that require needles that were not properly cleaned. Unclean needles can end up transmitting the virus through your blood. Additionally, gay men are more likely to get HIV because they are more likely to engage in anal sex. Anal sex is riskier than vaginal sex because the rectum has very thin skin that is susceptible to tears that can send HIV infected semen straight into the bloodstream. However, you can still get HIV from vaginal intercourse. Although incredibly rare, it is even possible to transmit the virus through oral sex if there are open cuts or sores around or in the mouth.

Therefore, heterosexual people who never used drugs in their lives can still get HIV. According the CDC, approximately one quarter of new HIV cases are in heterosexual adults. Therefore, you should still use condoms and get screened if you are a sexually active heterosexual adult. You should also be aware that only having sex with individuals who seem healthy will not reduce your risk of exposure. Most people with HIV can seem perfectly healthy and still have a detectable amount of virus in their blood.

Condoms and clean needles are not the only two prevention measures.

man holding PREP preexposure prophylaxis for HIV treatmentWhile condoms and clean needles are definitely a good idea, you can also use preexposure prophylaxis (PREP) treatment, which is a pill that will prevent infection. It is generally taken by people who have a high risk of exposure like gay men or people who have a partner who is HIV positive. PREP treatment works by inhibiting the virus’s ability to get to your immune system to attack it. It is perfectly safe and has almost no side effects, so once it becomes more popular outside of urban areas, it has the potential to seriously reduce the rate of transmission.

If you do take PREP, condoms are still important because PREP does not prevent you from getting any other type of sexually transmitted infection. However, if a condom breaks or was improperly used, PREP can always protect you against HIV. Additionally, if you think you were exposed to the virus and did not take any PREP treatment, you can take post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment within 72 hours. PEP treatment will significantly decrease your risk of getting infected.

Since treatment has improved so much since the epidemic first start, there are few misconceptions floating because people might not be fully aware of the newer research. HIV is not the killer that it once was and it does not spread as quickly as it used to. You still definitely want to be careful and seek treatment if you think you were exposed. However, HIV is no longer a death sentence.

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