People with HIV Now Living Full, Healthy Lives
In the 1980s, AIDS was a frightening disease that people knew little about. But they could see its devastating effects. At that time, a diagnosis of HIV meant almost certain death.
Since the identification of the HIV virus, outcomes today are much better for treating the virus and minimizing the spread of HIV. Thanks to medical breakthroughs and improved social services, patients with HIV can now live full and productive lives.
What Are HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, if not treated. HIV attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time and without treatment, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. Opportunistic infections or certain cancers can take advantage of a weakened immune system.
It’s important to note that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. A person is only diagnosed with AIDS if their CD4 count falls below 200, or they are diagnosed with an opportunistic infection and/or certain types of cancer.
While there is no cure for HIV, with proper medical care and medication, people can live normal lives.
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How HIV Is Transmitted
HIV is transmitted only when certain body fluids from a person who has a detectable HIV viral load exposes someone else to the virus. This can happen in several ways. In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by:
- Having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has detectable HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV
- Sharing injection drug equipment such as needles, with someone who has detectable HIV
- HIV can also spread from a woman with HIV to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. This spread of HIV is called mother-to-child transmission, vertical transmission, or perinatal transmission. However, if the mother is under physician care and on appropriate medications during her pregnancy and the birth, the baby can be born without HIV infection.
It should be noted that you can’t get HIV from casual contact with a person who has HIV. For example, you can’t be exposed to HIV from a handshake, hug, kiss, sweat, tears, or saliva. And you can’t get HIV from contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, or dishes used by a person who has HIV.
Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) Helping HIV Patients Live Full Lives
With proper medical care, HIV can be controlled to the point where someone can become non-infectious, or undetectable. The medications used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. If people with HIV take ART as prescribed, their viral load (the amount of HIV in their blood) can become undetectable.
If it stays undetectable, they can live long, healthy lives and have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner through sex. This is called U=U, which stands for Undetectable = Untransmittable. (Safe sex should still be practiced to prevent other sexually transmitted infections or STI’s, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia.)
Before the introduction of ART, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live just as long as someone who does not have HIV.
Some health officials and HIV experts are beginning to talk about a future in which HIV transmission in the United States could be halted. And that future, they say, could come not within a generation, but in the span of just a few years. From 2010 to 2015, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 8 percent.
According to the government’s HIV.gov website, the following Americans are at increased risk of contracting HIV.
- Gay and bisexual men have the largest number of new diagnoses in the United States.
- Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
- Transgender women who have sex with men are among the groups at the highest risk for HIV infection.
- Injection drug users remain at significant risk of getting HIV.
HIV, it should be emphasized, can be transmitted through heterosexual intercourse as well.
Reducing Your Risks
Anyone can become infected with HIV, but you can take steps to protect yourself from HIV infection.
- Get tested and know your partner’s HIV status.
- Use condoms.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Get tested and treated for STIs. Ask that your partners get tested and treated too. Having an STI can increase your risk of becoming infected with HIV or spreading it to others.
- Talk to your health care provider about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is an HIV prevention option for people who don’t have HIV but who are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. Taken as directed, it can prevent HIV infection.
- Don’t inject drugs. Sharing needles with others can transmit HIV.
Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV. The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested.
Some people may not feel sick during the first several weeks of infection. But others may experience a flu-like illness including:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. During this time, HIV infection may not show up on an HIV test, but people who have it are highly infectious and can spread the infection to others. Current HIV testing guidelines recommend an HIV test three months after your last possible exposure to ensure if you do have HIV, it is detected on the HIV test. This is called the “window period.” You can’t truly know if you have HIV or not if the possible exposure happened less than three months a, no matter what type of test is used.
If you have these symptoms, that doesn’t mean you have HIV. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. But if you have these symptoms after a potential exposure to HIV, see a health care provider and tell them about your risk. The only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection.
In the Harrisburg area, UPMC Pinnacle’s Resources, Education, and Comprehensive Care for HIV (REACCH) offers free and confidential HIV testing as well as primary HIV care and treatment for men, women, and adolescents. (See the sidebar for more information about REACCH.)
To find other places that offer confidential HIV testing:
- Visit gettested.cdc.gov,
- Text your ZIP code to KNOW IT (566948)
- Call 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
You can also use a home testing kit, available for purchase in most pharmacies and online.
After you get tested, it’s important to find out the result of your test so you can talk to your health care provider about treatment options if you’re HIV-positive, or learn ways to prevent getting HIV if you’re HIV-negative.
Hope for a Cure Continues
The fact remains that there is no cure for HIV. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and one in seven of them don’t know it. Additionally, since the start of the epidemic, 35 million have died worldwide from AIDS-related illnesses. It’s for this reason that it is so important to know your HIV status and seek medical if you are HIV positive.
In addition to the test locations listed above, your primary care provider can also provide HIV and other STD testing. To find a doctor near you, to UPMCPinnacle.com/PrimaryLocations.
REACCH Helps Harrisburg-Area Residents with HIV
UPMC Pinnacle’s Resources, Education, and Comprehensive Care for HIV (REACCH) program provide a comprehensive approach to HIV care in the Harrisburg area. They offer:
- HIV treatment
- Help with treatment adherence
- Primary medical care
- HIV education
- Free HIV test using a finger stick with results in 10 minutes
- Dental care
- Mental health counseling
REACCH also provides comprehensive wrap-around services to provide both medical and psychosocial support for people with HIV. Their al is to help people stay on their medications and remain as healthy as they can. Their psychological and social support services include:
- Medical case management
- Support services for patients and their families
- Nutritional counseling
- Social services
- Financial counseling
- Insurance enrollment assistance
- Help to access community resources
- Treatment adherence support
- Outreach to those who have fallen out of care
The program is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is conveniently located in uptown Harrisburg on the Polyclinic campus.
- For more information about our Support Groups for people with HIV, or general information about the REACCH Program, call 717-782-2750.
REACCH is funded through numerous federal and state grants and is a Ryan White Program. Patients are accepted regardless of their ability to pay.
About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.