The world is overdue for a massive flu epidemic. That’s why every time a new strain of flu appears, people panic and run to the nearest drugstore for surgical masks. This often causes people to forget about an epidemic that still claims millions of lives each year.
Since the 1980’s, AIDS has been known as the deadliest pandemic that has yet to be cured. Although there was one case where a man was possibly cured of HIV via very expensive stem cell therapy, AIDS is the stage at which the disease becomes terminal. 2.5 million people are infected with HIV every year, and about 2 million of those have no access to antiviral drugs.
HIV/AIDS research has gained tremendous progress in the early 90’s. Patients diagnosed with HIV, such as basketball star Magic Johnson, can live HIV positive for years on highly active antiretroviral therapy without ever developing AIDS. Antiviral drugs, however, are expensive, carry several side effects, and have no guarantee of preventing the virus from developing into AIDS.
The history and emergence of HIV is not well known. The scientific community believes that the disease originated in chimpanzees and jumped to humans during the early 20th century colonial period in western Africa. In 1981, a largely noticeable amount of homosexual men started developing rare forms of pneumonia and cancer that were only found in people with severely compromised immune systems. The CDC first recognized the disease as GRIDS, gay-related immune deficiency syndrome, and later changed the name to AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, after the disease was found in heterosexual females and people receiving blood transfusions.
HIV infection occurs with the transfer of bodily fluids via sex, blood transfusion, contaminated needles puncturing the skin, and breastfeeding. HIV also has no obvious symptoms so it can go undetected for long periods of time. HIV becomes AIDS when your body’s T Cells, the cells that help recognize and target pathogens, declines to a number where you no longer have immunity to several common diseases that would never be fatal in a healthy person. These diseases are known as opportunistic infections.
Severe, unexplained weight loss is often the first symptom of AIDS. Skin rashes and respiratory infections soon follow.
About 1% of the U.S. population is living with HIV. However, countries in southern and western Africa have populations were HIV is found in 15% of people, including children. Because of the high cost of antiviral drugs, many Africans living with HIV develop AIDS and die by the time they’re 20.
There are ways to help. Several AIDS research foundations have generated millions of dollars into HIV prevention and treatment (i.e. vaccines). Several charity groups are also raising awareness about the transmission of the virus in order to better educate people about the risks of unprotected sex and sharing needles.
If you’re living in the United States, chances of getting infected with HIV are slim, but better to be safe than sorry. Use condoms to not only prevent the spread of HIV but other STIs. Don’t share needles with anyone and if you go to get a tattoo or a piercing make sure the staff there uses a clean, sterilized new needle before use.
If you think there is even the remotest possibility you could be infected, get tested immediately. Many insurance plans cover some if not all of the cost of testing, and even if yours doesn’t being tested is still very affordable.
And remember, HIV is not a death sentence like it was once thought to be. It’s why people use the term “living with” instead of “dying from” when talking about disease.
Photos courtesy Time Magazine and Wikipedia.