Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Health Care and HIV/AIDS

According to, about 40,000 people are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS annually in the United States. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is different from most other viruses because it attacks the immune system. The immune system gives our bodies the ability to fight infections. HIV finds and destroys a type of white blood cell (T cells or CD4 cells) that the immune system must have to fight disease as per the definition by the CDC. Also, they show that AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. It can take years for a person infected with HIV, even without treatment, to reach this stage. Having AIDS means that the virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a difficult time fighting infections. When someone has one or more of these infections and a low number of T cells, he or she has AIDS.

Information available by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that HIV was first identified in the United States in 1981 after a number of gay men started getting sick with a rare type of cancer. It took several years for scientists to develop a test for the virus, to understand how HIV was transmitted between humans, and to determine what people could do to protect themselves. During the early 1980s, as many as 150,000 people became infected with HIV each year. By the early 1990s, this rate had dropped to about 40,000 each year, where it remains today. AIDS cases began to fall dramatically in 1996, when new drugs became available. Today, more people than ever before are living with HIV/AIDS. CDC estimates that about 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV or AIDS. About one quarter of these people do not know that they are infected: not knowing puts them and others at risk.

HIV is a fragile virus. It cannot live for very long outside the body. As a result, the virus is not transmitted through day-to-day activities such as shaking hands, hugging, or a casual kiss. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets. You also cannot get HIV from mosquitoes. HIV is primarily found in the blood, semen, or vaginal fluid of an infected person. HIV is transmitted in 3 main ways:
1.) Having sex (anal, vaginal, or oral) with someone infected with HIV
2.) Sharing needles and syringes with someone infected with HIV
3.) Being exposed (fetus or infant) to HIV before or during birth or through breast feeding.

The CDC also warns that the only way to know whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV. You cannot rely on symptoms alone because many people who are infected with HIV do not have symptoms for many years. Someone can look and feel healthy but can still be infected. In fact, one quarter of the HIV-infected persons in the United States do not know that they are infected. Once HIV enters the body, the body starts to produce antibodies—substances the immune system creates after infection. Most HIV tests look for these antibodies rather than the virus itself. There are many different kinds of HIV tests, including rapid tests and home test kits. All HIV tests approved by the US government are very good at finding HIV. HIV also can be transmitted through blood infected with HIV. However, since 1985, all donated blood in the United States has been tested for HIV. Therefore, the risk for HIV infection through the transfusion of blood or blood products is extremely low. The U.S. blood supply is considered among the safest in the world.

According to the Mayo Clinic, in the 25 years since the first reports of the disease, AIDS has become a global epidemic. Worldwide, an estimated 38.6 million people are living with HIV, nearly half of them women and girls between the ages of 15 and 24. And though the spread of the virus has slowed in some countries, it has escalated or remained steady in others. In 2005, more than 4 million people were newly infected with HIV; 25 million have died of AIDS since the epidemic began. Despite improved treatments and better access to care for people in the hardest-hit parts of the world, most experts agree that the pandemic is still in the early stages. With a vaccine probably decades away, the best hope for stemming the spread of HIV now lies in prevention, treatment and education.

There are also many complications that can result from getting the AIDS virus. The Mayo Clinic also says HIV infection weakens your immune system, making you highly susceptible to a large number of bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections. You may also be vulnerable to certain types of cancers. But treatment with anti-retroviral drugs has markedly decreased the number of opportunistic infections and cancers affecting people with HIV. It's now more likely these infections will occur in people who have not had treatment. Some of the additional health problems can be as follows:
--Bacterial infections, such as bacterial pneumonia and tuberculosis.
--Viral infections, such as viral Hepatitis and HPV.
--Fungal infections, such as Cryptococcal meningitis.
--Parasitic infections, such as Cryptosporidiosis causing chronic diarrhea.
--Cancers, such as Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Granted, HIV/AIDS is a highly infectious disease. The best way to not contract it is to be careful with any contact that you may have with someone who has the disease, and to maintain safe lifestyle practices. Abstinence is the primary way to keep from contracting HIV/AIDS, but in today's society, that is typically not the common practice. As a result, the spread of this disease and its complications has become a huge international health problem. If you are sexually active, always remember to practice safe sex. The amount of time it takes for symptoms of AIDS to appear varies from person to person. Some people may feel and look healthy for years while they are infected with HIV. It is still possible to infect others with HIV, even if the person with the virus has absolutely no symptoms. You cannot tell simply by looking at someone whether he or she is infected. According to information published online by the Nemours Foundation, when a person's immune system is overwhelmed by AIDS, the symptoms can include:
--extreme weakness or fatigue
--rapid weight loss
--frequent fevers that last for several weeks with no explanation
--heavy sweating at night
--swollen lymph glands
--minor infections that cause skin rashes and mouth, genital, and anal sores
--white spots in the mouth or throat
--chronic diarrhea
--a cough that won't go away
--trouble remembering things

Staying healthy is a good way to avoid getting HIV/AIDS. A very simple way to stay healthy is hand washing as noted by the Mayo Clinic. Hand washing doesn't take much time or effort, but it offers great rewards in terms of preventing illness. Adopting this simple habit can play a major role in protecting your health. Although it's impossible to keep your bare hands germ-free, there are times when it's critical to wash your hands to limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes. Despite the proven health benefits of hand washing, many people don't practice this habit as often as they should — even after using the toilet. Throughout the day you accumulate germs on your hands from a variety of sources, such as direct contact with people, contaminated surfaces, foods, even animals and animal waste. If you don't wash your hands frequently enough, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. And you can spread these germs to others by touching them or by touching surfaces that they also touch, such as doorknobs. Infectious diseases that are commonly spread through hand-to-hand contact include the common cold, flu and several gastrointestinal disorders, such as infectious diarrhea. While most people will get over a cold, the flu can be much more serious. Some people with the flu, particularly older adults and people with chronic medical problems, can develop pneumonia. The combination of the flu and pneumonia, in fact, is the eighth-leading cause of death among Americans.

Always wash your hands:

  • After using the toilet
  • After changing a diaper — wash the diaper-wearer's hands, too
  • After touching animals or animal waste
  • Before and after preparing food, especially before and immediately after handling raw meat, poultry or fish
  • Before eating
  • After blowing your nose
  • After coughing or sneezing into your hands
  • Before and after treating wounds or cuts
  • Before and after touching a sick or injured person
  • After handling garbage
  • Before inserting or removing contact lenses
  • When using public restrooms, such as those in airports, train stations, bus stations and restaurants
HIV/AIDS is deadly. Don't be careless with lifestyle choices related to this health issue. There is still no way to cure AIDS, and at the moment the only way to remain safe is not to become infected, which makes prevention so important. Combinations of antiviral drugs and drugs that boost the immune system have allowed many people with HIV to resist infections, stay healthy, and prolong their lives, but these medications are not a cure. One of the reasons that HIV is so dangerous is that a person can have the virus for a long time without knowing it. That person can then spread the virus to others through high-risk behaviors. HIV transmission can be prevented by:
--abstaining from sex (not having oral, vaginal, or anal sex).
--always using latex condoms for all types of sexual intercourse.
--avoiding contact with the bodily fluids through which HIV is transmitted.
--never sharing needles.

Be safe, not sorry. Use your common sense, not your libido, to make wise choices that will affect your health and your life.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

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