Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in 1981, more than 35 million people around the world have died. Every year on December 1, countries across the globe recognize World AIDS Day as an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease, show support for millions of HIV positive people, and remember those who have lost their lives from the condition.
Approximately 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and black and LatinX populations are disproportionately affected by the disease . This World AIDS Day, we want to encourage you to help defeat HIV stigma and give you the tools you need to prevent yourself and your loved ones from contracting this disease.
First, it’s important to understand what the difference between HIV and AIDS is and what the disease means for people who have it. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus—it’s what causes HIV infection. HIV destroys the immune system’s CD4 cells, which make it difficult for the body to fight off infection and certain cancers.
People who contract HIV and do not receive treatment develop AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. It can take around 10 years for someone with untreated HIV to develop AIDS. People with AIDS have incredibly weak immune systems, which can transform typical illnesses into deadly ones.
There is a common misconception that only gay men can contract HIV. In fact, HIV can affect any person of any gender or sexual orientation. While many cases are transmitted through unprotected sex, people can also contract HIV through other bodily fluids such as blood and breast milk. Additionally, people who struggle with injection drug use are also at high risk of contracting the disease due to sharing or reusing needles.
Fortunately, for the past several decades, HIV infection rates have decreased in the U.S. and around the world due to increased education about the disease and more effective preventive medical options. Always remember to use condoms every time you are sexually active and be sure to get tested regularly to ensure you are not HIV positive.
Though some people who are infected begin to have flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks after transmission, it may take several years for severe symptoms to begin showing. That’s why it’s critical to visit your doctor for testing regularly, so that if you do contract the disease you can begin treatment soon as possible.
Another preventative measure available is PrEP, an HIV prevention drug that drastically reduces the risk of becoming infected if you have contact with someone who is HIV positive. Speak with your doctor to see if PReP is the right fit for you.
If you are HIV positive, please remember that it is not a death sentence. In the decades since the disease was initially discovered, medical treatment has advanced substantially and made it possible for people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) helps decrease the amount of HIV in the body, protect the immune system, and prevent you from developing AIDS. If you are HIV positive, you should discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider and begin treating the disease as soon as possible.