This weekend the church I attend was visited by a priest from Kenya who enlightened the parishioners on the toll HIV/AIDS has taken in his country, in particular the mission in which he works. The stories were harrowing and the numbers are staggering. But when I look within our own country, I am sobered by the reality of HIV/AIDS in the USA. Here are the facts:
- Over one million Americans have HIV or AIDS.
- One in five are not even aware that he/she carries the infection.
- Over 17,000 Americans die annually of AIDS, despite the amazing advances in treatment and access to the most current therapies in the world.
Since the early 1990s, I have seen patients at every stage of this disease – from the newly infected to those facing death. One theme now rings clear – this disease can be prevented, and if infected, treated. But, in order to prevent and treat, we cannot hide from the facts and the reality. Some have told me that it would be controversial to take on this subject in the paper. I don’t shy away from straight talk. Not when it may make the difference between healthy life and becoming a statistic.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that ultimately causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS occurs when the cells that fight certain kinds of infections and some cancers drop to very low levels. Ultimately, these infections or cancers develop and can cause death.
While HIV is still most common among men who have sex with men, followed by injection drug users, it does not discriminate who gets infected. Anyone with the infection can pass the disease along to another person – man, woman or child. Among all groups, Black men are most commonly infected in America, followed by Black women, and then Hispanic/Latino men. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2006, Black men were six times more likely than white men to contract the infection – which translates to one in every 16 Black men. Black women were 15 times more likely than white women to contract the infection – or one in every 32 Black women.
HIV doesn’t hang out alone – it commonly occurs with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis. Not only are persons with STIs more likely to contract HIV, they are also more likely to pass it to another person. Today, women account for 25 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases in the U.S. – up from 10 percent early in the epidemic. Women typically contract HIV from infected male partners. And, women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy, childbirth or while breast feeding. About one in four babies (25 percent) born to women with HIV/AIDS will develop HIV. If that woman knows that she has HIV and is treated during and after her pregnancy, the risk to the baby can drop to 2 percent.
Transmission of the HIV virus causes AIDS. Here are some factors that cause transmission:
- Unprotected sex, having multiple partners or having a partner who has multiple partners, and/or having a partner who was at high risk for exposure like someone who was incarcerated.
- Lack of information about the virus and how it is transmitted, having another sexually transmitted disease, or lacking information about ones own HIV status.
- Use of any drugs that impair ones ability to think straight and take proper precautions.
- Poverty – using sex for money, food, or housing; not getting health care or testing because of lack of access to care; not understanding the risks.
What can you do? Know your HIV status. Take the test. Make your partner (or partners) take the test. If your kids are sexually active, make them take the test. Encourage your friends to take the test. As a health care worker, I’ve taken the test. It’s important to know the answer. Avoid IV drugs of any kind. Needles used by anyone else, for drugs or tattoos, should never touch your skin.
If you think you have a sexually transmitted infection or have been exposed to HIV, seek health care. The Indiana State Department of Health (www.in.gov/isdh) has a listing of test sites across the state. Marion County has a prevention program, and is active in the One Test, Two Lives campaign that seeks to test and treat pregnant women who either want to know whether they have HIV, or learn that they have been infected.
Lead by example. Take the test. It’s time to change the statistics.