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AIDS Awareness Month: What You Should Know

December is HIV/AIDS Awareness Month – a time to raise awareness and reflect on the impact that this epidemic has had on our communities and on the world.

The United States has made enormous strides in HIV treatment, care and prevention since the epidemic began 40 years ago. HIV was once the leading cause of death for young people, but because of scientific advances, fewer people are becoming infected with HIV, and those who do are living longer and healthier lives. The rate of new HIV infections declined 73% between 1984 and 2019, and the age-adjusted death rate has dropped more than 80% since its peak in 1995.

However, in some ways, progress has stalled, as too many people remain unaware of their HIV status, and too few people living at risk are taking the appropriate pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medicine. In 2019, there were approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S., with 34,800 new infections that year, representing an 8% decrease since 2015. However, an estimated one in eight people living with HIV in the U.S. did not know they’d been infected.

What are HIV and AIDS?

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. There is no cure, but it is treatable with medicine.

AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus. In the U.S., most people with HIV don’t develop AIDS because taking HIV medicine as prescribed stops the progression of the disease.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is spread by contact with certain body fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex or through sharing drug injection equipment.

You can only get HIV by coming into direct contact with the following body fluids from a person with a detectable level of HIV:

The human body can’t get rid of HIV, and no effective HIV cure exists. So once you have HIV, you have it for life. Fortunately, however, effective treatment with HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) is available. If taken as prescribed, ART can suppress HIV replication and reduce the amount of HIV in the blood to a very low and even undetectable level. Without HIV medicine, people with AIDS typically survive about three years.

Who is most at risk?

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) identifies the following priority populations as disproportionately impacted by HIV:

How can you tell if you have HIV?

The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. You can’t rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV. There are several symptoms of HIV, and not everyone will have the same ones.

However, within two to four weeks after infection, about two-thirds of people will experience a flu-like illness, including fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, mouth ulcers, etc. This is the body’s natural response to HIV infection.

Learn more online.

For more information on HIV and AIDS, visit these helpful links: