Ask anyone right now what disease they fear contracting and many would say Ebola. But to date there have been less than 10 cases of Ebola in the entire US. Compare that to 1.1 million people in the United States who are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. December 1st is World AIDS Day, yet this health crisis doesn’t seem to make it onto most young people’s radar.
As a millennial, there are many struggles that my fellow twenty-something year old friends and I face. We wrestle with finding the perfect job, becoming financially independent and navigating the somewhat murky waters of intimacy and relationships. Then there is my friend Sarah*. She is 27 and living with HIV. This is a struggle that I cannot even begin to imagine.
Sarah was diagnosed with HIV when she was 24 years old, though she believes she contracted the disease when she was only 19. She is a “nice Jewish girl” from a smart family and a wealthy town. In her mind, it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility that she could contract HIV. I had the opportunity to talk with her and get some insight into what it would be like to live with HIV.
What stereotypes do you encounter?
Sarah: For the people who have sex and do not contract HIV, their one mistake will turn into a funny joke later down the road instead of something that they live with their whole lives. I feel like I’m seen as dirty because I’m one of the people who have HIV but the other people who didn’t get it can brush it off, like “oh you’re just a stupid kid who made one mistake and had a one night stand.” Here is the best advice I can give to you:
1Don’t assume that someone is not infected because they “come from a good family” and are in the same social circle as you. People wouldn’t think I was infected and they would obviously be wrong.
2HIV affects people from all different walks of life and it is shortsighted to believe that only “certain types of people” contract the virus. Therefore, you should ALWAYS be safe and wear a condom or go with your partner and get tested. Don’t assume they have been tested just because they told you so. The odds of contracting HIV are very small, especially for people like me. But even if the percentage is 1%, you don’t want to be in that 1%. And SOMEONE has to make up that 1%, so make sure that you are not the one.
The statistics are sobering. More than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the first cases were reported in 1981. According to aids.gov, of the 1.1 million people in the US who are currently living with HIV, almost 1 in 6 don’t even know they are infected.
A lot of my peers have heard about HIV/AIDS but don’t seem to have a clear idea of what it really is or how one can contract it. Unfortunately, young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are at the highest risk for infection.
To understand what HIV is, let’s break it down with the information from Aids.gov.
H – Human – This particular virus can only infect human beings.
I – Immunodeficiency – HIV weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. A “deficient” immune system can’t protect you.
V – Virus – A virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a lot like other viruses, including those that cause the “flu” or the common cold. But there is an important difference – over time, your immune system can clear most viruses out of your body. That isn’t the case with HIV – the human immune system can’t seem to get rid of it. We know that HIV can hide for long periods of time in the cells of your body and that it attacks a key part of your immune system – your T-cells or CD4 cells. Your body has to have these cells to fight infections and disease, but HIV invades them, uses them to make more copies of itself, and then destroys them. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of your CD4 cells that your body can’t fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV infection can lead to AIDS.
To understand what AIDS is, let’s break it down:
A – Acquired – AIDS is not something you inherit from your parents. You acquire AIDS after birth.
I – Immuno – Your body’s immune system includes all the organs and cells that work to fight off infection or disease.
D – Deficiency – You get AIDS when your immune system is “deficient,” or isn’t working the way it should.
S – Syndrome – A syndrome is a collection of symptoms and signs of disease. AIDS is a syndrome, rather than a single disease, because it is a complex illness with a wide range of complications and symptoms.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is the final stage of HIV infection. People at this stage of HIV disease have badly damaged immune systems, which put them at risk for opportunistic infections (OIs).
The good news is that you can live with HIV and Sarah is proving that—she says:
Sarah: My doctor reassured me that HIV is no longer a death sentence, like it was back in the 80’s, and that it is treatable today. I started on medication right when I got my diagnosis although there is some debate as to whether one should start taking medication immediately. I found out that different “strains” of HIV develop once the virus mutates and causes resistance to certain medications. The resistance occurs because someone did not comply with their medication and did not take it every day, as necessary. At that point, the virus builds up immunity to the meds since it was not taken regularly. If that strain is passed (based on someone not taking their meds) then you have that resistance. Everyone these days has some strain of the virus and is resistant to some medications, but historically that is how the strains develop. I was luckily only resistant to one medication- the “all in one” pill. I now take 3 pills a day. I am very fortunate because I feel no side effects. I just take the pills with my fish oil and vitamins.
How has having HIV changed you?
Sarah: I think having HIV has made me a better person, as crazy as it sounds. I have a better global perspective, I’m less judgmental, and I don’t feel immune to the world even though I had advantages growing up that other people never had. Overall, I have a positive outlook for the disease. At first I thought, ‘Other people deserve this, not me. Drug addicts deserve it. I don’t. I know better. I am better than this.’ But having the disease has taught me to not judge anyone else because no one is better than anyone else. It can happen to anybody.
This year’s theme for World AIDS Day is “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-free Generation.” Join the movement with other millennials by getting tested and speaking up on World AIDS Day. Find a testing site near you by visiting: http://aids.gov/locator/ and join the Facing AIDS Movement here: http://facing.aids.gov/gallery/.