HIV/AIDS has been a global epidemic for more than 27 years. Most of today’s youth have never known a world without it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and that 21% of these persons do not know they are infected.
Ahead of World AIDS Day, the Obama administration announced that the United States will host the International AIDS Society’s 2012 conference in Washington, D.C. The conference has not been held in the United States for decades because of the U.S. Reagan-era policy barring entry by HIV-positive visitors and immigrants. In October, President Barack Obama had announced that the 1987 ban would be overturned, effective early next year.
Today, 1 December 2009,the United Nations Secretary General, the Executive Director of UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) Secretariat and Heads of UNAIDS Cosponsors and partners spoke out in special World AIDS Day statements.
HIV is an acronym for human immunodeficiency virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is different from most other viruses because it attacks the immune system. The immune system gives our bodies the ability to fight infections. HIV finds and destroys a type of white blood cell (T cells or CD4 cells) that the immune system must have to fight disease.
The only way to know whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV. You cannot rely on symptoms alone because many people who are infected with HIV do not have symptoms for many years. Someone can look and feel healthy but can still be infected.
Once HIV enters the body, the body starts to produce antibodies—substances the immune system creates after infection. Most HIV tests look for these antibodies rather than the virus itself. There are many different kinds of HIV tests, including rapid tests and home test kits. All HIV tests approved by the US government are very good at finding HIV.
AIDS is an acronym for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. It can take years for a person infected with HIV, even without treatment, to reach this stage. Having AIDS means that the virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a difficult time fighting infection. When someone has one or more specific infections, certain cancers, or a very low number of T cells, he or she is considered to have AIDS.
Scientists have identified a type of chimpanzee in West Africa as the source of HIV infection in humans. The virus most likely jumped to humans when humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came into contact with their infected blood. Over several years, the virus slowly spread across Africa and later into other parts of the world.
HIV was first identified in the United States in 1981 after a number of gay men started getting sick with a rare type of cancer. It took several years for scientists to develop a test for the virus, to understand how HIV was transmitted between humans, and to determine what people could do to protect themselves.
In 2008, CDC adjusted its estimate of new HIV infections because of new technology developed by the agency. Before this time, CDC estimated there were roughly 40,000 new HIV infections each year in the United States. New results shows there were dramatic declines in the number of new HIV infections from a peak of about 130,000 in the mid 1980s to a low of roughly 50,000 in the early 1990s. Results also shows that new infections increased in the late 1990s, followed by a leveling off since 2000 at about 55,000 per year. In 2006, an estimated 56,300 individuals were infected with HIV. AIDS cases (but not HIV infection) began to fall dramatically in 1996, when new drugs became available.
HIV is a fragile virus. It cannot live for very long outside the body. As a result, the virus is not transmitted through day-to-day activities such as shaking hands, hugging, or a casual kiss. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets. You also cannot get HIV from mosquitoes.
HIV is primarily found in the blood, semen, or vaginal fluid of an infected person. HIV is transmitted by:
- Having unprotected (sex without a condom) sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) with someone who has HIV.
- Having unprotected oral sex with someone who has HIV. The risk goes up if there is ejaculation in the mouth. The risk rises still higher if either partner has cuts or sores in the mouth from recent tooth brushing, bleeding gums, canker sores or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Sharing needles, syringes or drug works with someone infected with HIV.
- Pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding if the mother has HIV infection.
HIV also can be transmitted through blood infected with HIV. However, since 1985, all donated blood in the United States has been tested for HIV. Therefore, the risk for HIV infection through the transfusion of blood or blood products is extremely low. The U.S. blood supply is considered among the safest in the world. To keep from getting HIV:
- Use latex condoms. Proper, consistent use of a latex condom can prevent transmission of HIV 80 to 95% of the time. Condoms can also help reduce the risk of acquiring some other STDs.
- Use plastic wrap or dental dams to help prevent HIV-infection during oral and oral-anal sex.
- Use clean needles. If you do use injectible drugs, use a new, clean needle every time.
- Have sober sex. Drug and alcohol-free sex increases your chances of having safer sex.
- Learn more. The more you know about safe sex, your body, condom use, HIV/AIDS, and your partner, the better you can protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases.
- Fewer partners, monogamy, and abstinence. The fewer sex partners you have, the more you reduce your risk of HIV infection. While sex is a healthy, natural part of life, you may want to wait to have sex until you know the person you are with is someone you truly care about and has your best interest in mind. If they’re not willing to wait, then maybe they weren’t worth the wait. Trust yourself and what you need. It’s your life and your health. Protect it.