Thursday, June 14, 2012

Do you know your status?

Over three decades have passed since we first heard of HIV/AIDS. The first reported case in the US was in 1981, when The New York Times reported an outbreak of a rare form of cancer among gay men in New York City. This “cancer” was identified as Kaposi's Sarcoma, a disease that later became known as HIV/AIDS. Since 1981, researchers have made a lot of progress in learning about the virus. We now know how it is transmitted, how to get tested, and how to stay safe. Still, there are too many new infections occurring every year.

How Many? Who and Where?
According to UNAIDS, an estimated 1.2 million people now live with HIV/AIDS in the United States. About 20% of those infected (240,000 people) are unaware of their HIV status. These people may unknowingly spread the infection while missing early treatment for the virus.

In the US, an estimated 50,000 persons are infected annually. While most new infections occur in urban areas, the entire country is affected. Nearly 107,000 New Yorkers are living with HIV, while thousands more don't know they are infected.

UNAIDS and the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified high-risk groups. Men who have sex with men accounted for 61% of new infections in 2009. Intravenous drug users accounted for 9%, and heterosexuals accounted for 27%. In 2009, 73% of the new HIV cases occurred in males. Previously, infections occurred in individuals between the ages of 13 – 29, but now middle-aged adults and seniors are becoming infected in greater numbers. About 17% of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in the USA are found in people over the age of 50, according to the 2009 CDC report. About one-third of all people living with HIV/AIDS in the USA are 50 years of age or older. This number is expected to increase by one-half by 2015. Everyone is at risk for HIV, not only high risk groups.

Why don’t people get tested?
If you are sexually active and you know that you had intercourse or oral sex without using protection, you should get tested. Not only does HIV/AIDS affect your health, but it is also your responsibility to make sure you don't spread the virus further. Many people are afraid of being tested for HIV; however, HIV testing must become more widespread. We have to bring it out in the open and decrease the stigma associated with it. We need to change our attitudes about HIV and make it easier to be tested.

How testing works
Ways of being tested are constantly improving and taking an HIV test is becoming easier. Blood samples are the most common diagnostic test used to identify HIV/AIDS. Recently, tests were developed in which a mouth swab may be used to identify the infection. Some tests require more than a week to provide results; meanwhile, others can give you a preliminary answer about your infection status in less than an hour.

You can get tested in many different settings. A physician may administer a test during your normal checkup. There are also Local STD Testing Sites all around the US (STD ALERT). This is easy way to get tested: you don't need an appointment and you don't need to see a doctor. STD Alert can give you the results within 24 – 48 hours. Check out the website for prices and centers:

Now you can use a new product called EZ – TRUST. This is a test you can take at home. The kit comes with everything you need to be able to find out your HIV status.

Staying HIV Negative
Many people misunderstand how HIV is transmitted. You can become infected if you are having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV. The virus can be in an infected person's blood, semen or vaginal secretion. You can also get the virus if you share a needle and syringe with someone who is HIV positive while injecting drugs. Babies born to women with HIV can also become HIV positive during pregnancy, birth, or breast feeding.

You cannot get HIV by working with or being around someone who is HIV positive. The virus is not transmitted through sweat, saliva, tears, clothes, drinking fountains, toilet seats, or phones. Neither does it spread through insect bites or from donating blood.

To avoid getting infected it is important to protect yourself while having sex. Latex condoms offers the best protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. If you use drugs, never use needles that another person has already used. Find out if there is a needle exchange program near you.

HIV Positive, now what?
If you are diagnosed with HIV, it is up to you to make the decision to share that information with others. In some states you are legally required to reveal your status to certain people. For more information, please visit the American Liberties Union's State Criminal Statutes on HIV Transmission:

It is very important that you talk with your current and past sexual partners about your HIV status. If you have shared needles with others while using drugs, you need to inform them as well. You don't have to tell them yourself; the health department in your area can notify your sexual or needle-sharing partners.

Finding out you are HIV positive can be difficult to handle. Throughout my year at Global Action on Aging, I have spoken to a lot of people who are living with HIV. When my friend, Antonio Munoz, found out the news about his status, he says that “everything stopped.” He “felt that the consequences of his past had caught up with him”. My other friend, Ed Shaw, took the news “as a death sentence; he never though in his wildest dreams that he would live passed the age of 48.” Today, he has lived with the infection for more than two decades.

However, affected people find that sharing one’s status with those you trust can be very helpful. It is very important that you reveal your status to your healthcare provider to make sure that you get the best care possible. If you need further support and help, there are several resources available to you. Gay Men's Health Crisis is a great organization that works with people who are HIV positive. Please visit their website at:

Sanna Klemetti