HIV/AIDS has had a monumental impact on our society since the late 1980s. More than a million men and women are living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in America, and it is estimated that there are anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 new cases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women, especially, are at risk.
The Female Burden
The old perception that AIDS affects only homosexual men has long since vanished as this terrible disease has infiltrated all sectors of the population. In fact, the AIDS epidemic has had a unique impact on women, which has been exacerbated by their role in society and their biological vulnerability to HIV infection.
Biologically women are twice as likely to become infected with HIV through unprotected heterosexual intercourse as men. The female genitals are more susceptible to infection due to their unique shape and structure (although men are at risk as well and should always practice safer sex). It is estimated that 390,000 women above the age of 15 are living with HIV or AIDS in America and 72 percent of those women become affected from heterosexual sex. In the US, African-American and Hispanic women account for 80 percent of AIDS cases, even though they represent less than one-fourth of the female population.
The Medical Explanation
HIV occurs when the body begins to attack its own blood cells, specifically the CD4+ T cells, which are needed to stave off infections. When these cells are compromised, the body is unprotected against potential infections. Symptoms of HIV include rashes and flu-like symptoms, such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, etc.
If left untreated, HIV is likely to develop into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) within ten years of infection. A person moves from HIV into AIDS status when his or her T cells drop to below 200 per cubic millimeter of blood, and symptoms such as severe infection, weight loss, fatigue, rashes/lesions, tuberculosis, Kaposi's sarcoma, pneumonia, lymphoma, and cervical cancer (in women) may begin to appear.
Diagnosis and Protection
HIV is most commonly diagnosed by testing blood or saliva for the presence of antibodies to the virus. Unfortunately, these types of HIV tests aren't accurate immediately after infection because it takes time for the body to develop these antibodies — usually up to 12 weeks. In rare cases, it can take up to six months for an HIV antibody test to become positive.
Condoms can help to prevent HIV/AIDS, but they aren’t 100 percent effective. Even so, condoms should be nonnegotiable with a new partner until you both have had a clean HIV/STD panel for six months! You should also never share needles or handle anyone else’s blood.
Although there is currently no cure for AIDS, medical advances are helping patients live longer, healthier lives. A variety of drugs can be used in combination to control the virus. Each of the classes of anti-HIV drugs blocks the virus in a different way. It's best to combine at least three drugs from two different classes to avoid creating strains of HIV that are immune to single drugs. The classes of anti-HIV drugs include:
- Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs). NNRTIs disable a protein needed by HIV to make copies of itself.
- Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs). NRTIs are faulty versions of building blocks that HIV needs to replicate.
- Protease inhibitors (PIs). PIs disable protease, another protein that HIV needs to make copies of itself.
- Entry or fusion inhibitors. These drugs block HIV's entry into CD4 cells.
- Integrase inhibitors. Raltegravir (Isentress) works by disabling integrase, an enzyme needed by HIV to replicate.
Although there is no cure for AIDS yet, these treatments and other medical advances are helping patients live longer, healthier lives.