HIV – Still a Taboo Illness?
HIV has long been quite a taboo topic. People often have trouble discussing the disease thanks to the connotations and stigma that it once held. This has led to little actual understanding of the disease, or even miss told facts that simply are not true.
HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus, which damages the cells in your immune system, weakening your ability to fight everyday infections and diseases.
A lot of people believe that if you have HIV, you are most definitely going to get AIDS, which Is the acquired immune deficiency syndrome, but this is not the case at all. AIDS is a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that are caused when your immune system has been so severely damaged by the HIV virus. A big misconception is thought that AIDS cannot be transmitted from one person to another, whereas the HIV virus can be.
Although progress is moving along nicely into the treatment of HIV, there is currently no cure at the moment. There are a number of very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to continue living a long and healthy life. If you recognise the condition early enough and start on effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live to a near-normal lifespan.
Although it was once thought to be a condition that only affected gay men, but it might surprise people to know that the majority of those people living with HIV were exposed to the virus through heterosexual sex without a condom. Unfortunately, though, the following statement reveals that it is still very much a taboo illness, as one-third of those people living with the condition in the UK alone have experienced some form of discrimination.
So, just what are the symptoms?
Nearly eighty per cent of those who contract HIV will experience flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of contracting the virus. The initial stage of the illness is known as acute HIV infection, and is the primary stage of the virus, and will last until the body has created antibodies against it. The most common symptoms of this stage of the virus include a body rash, fever, sore throat and severe headaches. The following symptoms might be present as well, although they are considered to be less common. They include; fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals (although the latter is specific to men – we will discuss this in more detail later), muscle aches, joint pain, nausea and vomiting and night sweats. These symptoms normally last between one and two weeks. It should be noted that the above symptoms can be a sign of a number of different illnesses, so do not panic if you are experiencing them, although it is probably best to book an appointment with your GP to make sure everything is fine. However, if you are experiencing these symptoms, and are concerned that you might have contracted HIV, they should book an appointment with their GP to be tested as soon as possible.
We previously mentioned a symptom that is very specific to men. On the whole, symptoms are the same between both men and women; however, one symptom that is only present in men is an ulcer on the penis. It can also lead to low testosterone levels, which can then cause erectile dysfunction.
How do you get diagnosed?
If you are at all concerned that you might have contracted the HIV virus, it is so important that you go and get tested for the virus. The most simple way to be tested is by getting a sample of your blood or saliva, which is then tested for the signs of infection.
There is also an emergency anti-HIV medication which can be offered and might stop you from contracting the virus, as long as it is started within 72 hours of possible exposure to the virus, although it is recommended that it is ideally started within 24 hours. If you are diagnosed with HIV, an early diagnosis is really important as you can start your treatment sooner, which will them improve your chances of controlling the virus, and reduce the chances of not only becoming more unwell but also of passing the virus onto others.
Regardless of whether your test comes back as positive or negative, it must be repeated after a month or three at the latest, after the exposure to the virus. If you do have a positive test result, you will have a further blood test to confirm, and you will not be left alone. You will be directed to the appropriate support, who can help you deal with your news and talk you through what this will mean to you.
What treatment is available to HIV sufferers?
HIV positive patients must have regular blood tests in order to monitor the progress of the condition. These will include the HIV viral blood test, which is designed to monitor the amount of HIV virus in the blood and a CD4 lymphocyte cell count, which will measure how the virus has affected the immune system.
Like we said though, treatment for the condition is available, and it is no longer considered a death sentence as it was once thought to be. Antiviral drugs will stop the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself, preventing further damage.
Normally, a combination of HIV drugs are used, due to the fact the virus can quickly become resistant to them. It is common to take between one and four pills daily for the treatment of the condition.
How can you prevent it?
Although there is no cure for the condition, there are ways of preventing the virus. Anyone that has sex without a condom, or who shares needles is at risk of contracting the infection. So, it is important that you prevent these chances by; using a condom when you have sex, taking the appropriate post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you have been exposed to HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), never sharing needles, or other drug equipment, including syringes, spoons and swabs.
Educating yourself on HIV
There are three stages of HIV; the initial stage, which we have spoken about, and occurs within weeks of contracting the virus, and presents itself as flu-like symptoms that last anywhere between a couple of weeks, to a month; the chronic stage, which is simply a long duration of the infection without symptoms, which normally last an average of eight to ten years; and finally the symptomatic infection, which is where the body’s immune system has been suppressed and AIDS have developed.
Despite the illness only being formally recognised for just over thirty years, the earliest confirmed case of AIDS in humans was in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was diagnosed in 1959 from a preserved tissue sample.
There is evidence to suggest that AIDS was also present in Europe after World War II, after a lot of children were dying from PCP, which is a disease which only presents itself in those with a weakened immune system, suggesting the patients had AIDS, although this has not been confirmed.
You cannot get HIV through hugging
People are often incredibly confused as to how the infection can be passed from one person to another.
You cannot get HIV through hugging or touching someone with the virus, nor can you get it from using public bathrooms or swimming pools, using the same cup or utensils, or telephones. Like we have said, the most common way in which you can contract the virus is through unprotected sex without a condom, and through sharing needles, most commonly in drug use.
The infection stays alive after you die
Infectious HIV was recovered from human corpses, between 11 and 16 days after death, from bodies that were stored in temperatures of 2 degrees. After 16 days, infectious HIV was not detected, which then suggests that over time these bodies become less of a risk. Studies have also shown that embalming fluids actually inactivates HIV.
There are 2 strains of HIV
Two strains of HIV have been identified at the moment. HIV-1, and HIV-2. HIV-1 is more easily transmitted, and more virulent, and because of this, the majority of sufferers have this strain of HIV. HIV-2 is harder to transmit and is therefore mainly confined to West Africa.
It can cause problems recognising facial emotions
Research has suggested that people with HIV have a harder time recognising fear in people’s faces. It is thought that the trouble with emotional recognition might be caused by damage to the brain from the virus.
DC Comics tried introducing an HIV positive villain
Back in 1988, DC Comics created a very controversial villain, who they named ‘Hemo-Goblin’. It was a vampire, who was created by a group of white supremacists and was used to infect minority. It is not surprising, that, even back in the eighties, this character was deemed highly inappropriate, and was not popular. So much so, that it only featured on one issue of The New Guardians.
You can live a long, healthy and normal life with HIV
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the condition. Twenty-five years ago even, it was considered a death sentence. This could not be more different today though, thanks to new antiviral treatments that mean patient’s virus loads can be kept very low, and their immune system strong.
Tony Bondurant says;
“Simply getting access to [antiretroviral treatment] has transformed HIV into a chronic illness, allowing people to live near-normal life spans”
John Trott agrees, saying;
“Over the years, we’ve developed drugs that are generally well-tolerated and require infrequent dosing, so you shouldn’t have to take more than one pill a day, and sometimes just one or two…Going forward, it may become easier and easier for patients to stay adherent to their prescribed regimens, so they don’t stop taking their medications.”
Looking into the future
In just a couple of decades into a relatively new illness, already people have realised that it is not an immediate death sentence that it was once seen to be.
Research is continuing and more and more preventatives and treatments are being developed, which might in time mean that those with the condition can live a completely normal life, with a normal lifespan, as opposed to a near-normal lifespan.
Whilst it has become more understood in terms of people realising that you can live with the condition, and it can affect anyone, not just men who engage in unprotected sex with another man, it is still a taboo subject. People face a lot of judgement if they reveal that they have HIV, despite the progress that the virus has had over the years.
Maybe, if people understood the condition, what it means, and to know what signs to look out for, and felt freer in discussing it, it might mean that people take more precautions, which can mean that the number who are diagnosed with the infection can fall, instead of rising. Unfortunately though, until there is more education surrounding it, it will always carry a bit of a stigma.