In the early 1980s, HIV was a death sentence. Today, it is manageable with medication and can be treated as just another chronic disease. With new medical advancements and increased awareness, we have made considerable progress in combating HIV/AIDS since its outbreak 40 years ago. However, there are still many challenges that must be addressed if we want to make a lasting impact on this epidemic.
A Brief History of HIV
The 1980s saw the emergence of a new disease that would eventually come to be known as HIV. It was spread primarily through sexual contact or sharing needles, and at first it seemed like everyone who had been exposed developed AIDS and died shortly after exposure. By 1985, every region in world reported an incidence rate above 1500 cases per 100 thousand people infected. Eventually, through years of research, scientists found out how they could slow down or even stop the progression of HIV. These studies led to the creation of a prescription medication called PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis.
HIV In America Today
Despite the breakthroughs in prevention and treatment of HIV, the statistics for HIV in America are staggering. A substantial number of Americans are still impacted by the virus- 1.1 million individuals in the US are living with HIV. 1 in 7 are unaware that they are infected. According to the CDC, a total of 51% of teens and young adults with HIV do not know they have it. There are an estimated 1 million people in the US who are at substantial risk of contracting HIV, but less than 10% of those individuals take preventative medication. Because of this, the CDC recommends that anyone who is sexually active should test for HIV at least once a year.
Protection with PrEP
In 2012, the FDA approved Truvada as a preventative of HIV. In January 2020, California became the first state to allow pharmacists to dispense PrEP without a doctor’s prescriptions, as long as certain clinical criteria of the individual were met. When taken as authorized, PrEP is up to 99% effective at preventing HIV. PrEP is a once daily pill that works by setting up “walls” around certain cells; these walls then keep HIV from crossing into the healthy cells and replicating. If HIV enters your body, it will be unable to breach the walls to gain access to the cells. It is estimated that PrEP starts protecting you anywhere from 7 to 20 days after the first dose.
Although there is still no cure for HIV, modern medications allow people to live long and healthy lives with HIV, without passing the virus to sexual partners.
A Few HIV Myths
There were still many things unknown about the virus in the early years of the HIV epidemic. During thse times of fear and uncertainty, many myths about the virus became popularized. One of those myths is that it is unsafe to have intimate contact with someone who has HIV. However, the combination of a PrEP prescription and condom use provides very strong protection against contracting HIV. If someone living with HIV is taking HIV medication, and there are no symptoms of the virus, then the virus cannot spread to their partner. This is where we get the phrase “undetectable = untransmittable” or “U=U.”
Another common myth is that HIV is the same thing as AIDS. However, HIV is a virus whereas AIDS describes a condition that can possibly develop after many years if left untreated. HIV does not progress to AIDS until the immune system becomes compromised, at which point a person with HIV is vulnerable not only to certain infections but also forms of cancer. However, it is completely possible to contract HIV and never develop AIDS.
Where we are Now
Despite there being no cure for HIV yet, it is now possible to live a long and healthy life with the right medication. A person’s circumstances have changed quite dramatically since the earlier years of this epidemic – now they are able to lead active lifestyles that were once considered impossible due in part by discrimination against those infected as well negative attitudes concerning their own diagnosis.
While HIV has had a devastating impact on many individuals, there have still been many advances in HIV prevention and treatment that make living with this virus easier while protecting loved ones.
The way forward is by staying educated, testing for HIV regularly, and starting a PrEP prescription if you are at risk of contracting HIV.