World Aids Day
December 1, 2017 | by Yuan Zhou MD, MPH


World AIDS Day, symbolized by a red ribbon, is held annually on December 1 to highlight the continued fight against HIV/AIDS, show support for those living with the virus, and remember those who have died from the disease. Take this opportunity on World AIDS Day to educate yourself and others, get tested if you don't know your status, and offer support and compassion to those living with HIV and AIDS.

HIV vs. AIDS

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, the body’s way of defending against diseases.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

Why is getting treatment for HIV important?

Without treatment, HIV weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight infection and other diseases. While there is still no cure for HIV, combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), when taken consistently under the care of a physician, enables people to live normal lifespans.

Facts about HIV

  • 36.7 million people in the world live with HIV
  • 1.1 million people in the United States live with HIV
  • 470 people are diagnosed with HIV each year in Washington state
  • Only 60% of those with HIV know their status

Who is at risk for HIV?

Those at highest risk of HIV are:

  • Men who have sex with men
  • Transgender youth and adults
  • Intravenous drug users
  • People in a relationship with an HIV-positive partner (serodiscordant couples)
  • People who have unprotected sex with partners of unknown HIV status.

HIV has disproportionately impacted African American and Hispanic communities. African Americans represent only 3% of the population of Washington, but make up 17% of all HIV cases in the state. The Latino/Hispanic community makes up 11% of the population, but has 16% of HIV cases.

Undiagnosed cases of HIV

One in seven people in the United States don't know they are infected with HIV. Just 30% of those with HIV are appropriately treated and have the virus under control. While treatment has vastly improved since HIV was first identified in 1985, education, testing, and prevention remain the keys to reducing the impact of this potentially deadly disease.

How does HIV spread?

HIV is spread through body fluids including blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. In the United States, HIV is transmitted mainly through sexual contact with someone who has HIV or sharing needles/syringes with someone who has HIV.

When a person with HIV is appropriately treated with medications and the virus is “undetectable,”the risk of passing the virus to someone else is significantly lower.

How can HIV be prevented?

The best ways to prevent the spread of HIV infection are abstinence, practicing safe sex, and not sharing drug equipment.

In addition, those at very high-risk also should consider taking a daily pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to significantly reduce their risk. When PrEP is taken daily,the overall risk of HIV infection can be reduced by up to 92 percent.

Currently the only currently approved PrEP drug is Truvada, a two-drug combination pill composed of tenofovir and emtricitabine. Truvada is meant to be taken every day, in combination with other prevention options such as condoms, during high-risk periods in a person's life.

What are the side effects of these medications?

These drugs are generally very well tolerated and have few side effects, though regular toxicity monitoring and HIV testing are required. People using PrEP must commit to taking it daily and to visiting their health care provider every three months for testing. Additional PrEP regimens are currently being studied.

Who should be tested for HIV?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested for HIV at least once, and that those at higher risk get tested more frequently.

Those at high risk may benefit from getting tested every three to six months. Newer lab tests (fourth generation) can detect HIV between 14 and 21 days, which is much sooner than previous methods. Many clinics, including The Polyclinic, offer this test and provide a quick turnaround on results.

Good news ahead

HIV infection rates in the United States decreased from 2008-2014 by 18%, an encouraging sign that education, testing, and prevention methods are working. Many studies are underway to find vaccines to prevent HIV infection and cures for those infected with HIV. A cure for HIV/AIDS may be discovered in our lifetimes!

The Polyclinic Infectious Disease Department is available to see patients currently infected with HIV and those who may be eligible for PrEP. Call 206-860-4447 to make an appointment or learn more.

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Written By: Yuan Zhou MD, MPH