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Your focus may be on the current pandemic, but this other virus shouldn’t be ignored.
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Everywhere you turn these days there are constant reminders of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The news is filled with conflicting information. People are scared. Misinformation is spread. And sometimes it feels like we’ll never get through this crisis. But not long ago, the world faced another public health crisis from a virus you may no longer think much about unless you are personally impacted – the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the HIV epidemic fueled headlines, bias, misinformation and fear when it became clear that the human immunodeficiency virus was the cause of millions of people becoming sick or dying. But just because you don’t hear much about HIV these days, doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

Let’s take a look at this global epidemic, still affecting approximately 38 million people worldwide today.

The Early Days of HIV

In 1981, news initially spread about what was referred to as a sort of “cancer” affecting young gay men in New York and Los Angeles. Like COVID-19, misinformation about the virus spread like wildfire. And because of HIV’s association with the LGBTQ community, the virus was highly stigmatized.

In time, medical experts determined that HIV could infect all members of the population, not just the LGBTQ community. They also figured out that in addition to spreading through sexual contact, a person could contract HIV from infected drug needles or blood transfusions.

By the 1990s, the government, news media and schools made it clear that everyone was potentially at risk of contracting HIV. Educating the public about the dangers of HIV and how to prevent its spread through protected sex and avoiding shared needles was a new normal to navigate, in some ways similar to the situation we face today in learning how to protect ourselves in new ways against the novel coronavirus.

But thanks to research and the development of effective drug therapies, the outlook for people with HIV has changed over the years. In 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death in 25-44 year olds, but death rates began to rapidly decline once drug therapies were developed and became widely available.

Signs and Symptoms

The HIV virus consists of three stages:

  1. Acute HIV Infection
  2. Chronic HIV Infection
  3. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

When individuals are first infected with HIV (stage 1), they may experience flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all. During stage 2, which can last for a decade or longer, the HIV virus is still active in the body but reproduces at low levels. Because it’s possible to have no symptoms during this stage, getting tested is critical if you think you might be at risk. It is during this stage that the virus can be spread. However, studies show that people living with HIV who are on a regular antiretroviral therapy (ART) that reduces the virus to undetectable levels cannot transmit HIV to a partner during sex. Those who reach stage 3, AIDS, have such compromised immune systems that they may easily contract other severe illnesses, making them very sick or leading to death.

Treatment and Prognosis

Today’s outlook for HIV patients is mostly positive. Antiretroviral therapy can slow the progression of the virus so infected individuals never reach the final stage and it can make it less likely that they’ll spread the virus. Through treatment, HIV-positive individuals can lead healthy and productive lives. Both AIDS-related deaths and transmissions of the virus from person to person through sex or from pregnant women to their babies have dropped significantly because of ART. Though there is still no cure for HIV, researchers are getting closer to finding one.

Why We Shouldn’t Forget about This Epidemic

Right now, our primary focus may be on COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, but it’s important to remember that there are other viruses that have come before this one that are still affecting millions of people around the world. And although the timeline is always different, more and more is constantly being learned about how to treat and prevent the spread of the virus.

The future looks promising for those currently living with HIV. As with any virus, the key is knowing what to do to protect yourself as much as possible from contracting the disease. If you do have the virus, knowing when to get tested, the symptoms to look out for and when to seek treatment is critical to staying healthy.

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Date Last Reviewed: October 16, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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