How is AIDS spread? Can I hug a person with AIDS?
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, is an STD caused by a virus called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). It is the newest and most serious of all STDs. Given the tremendous amount of attention it has received in the public media (television, newspapers), chances are you have already heard quite a lot about it. HIV infection often presents no serious symptoms for the first three to eight years after infection. However, during this period, the virus can still be passed on to other people. In other words, a person with the HIV virus can infect another person without knowing it. This is why the disease has spread in the population like an epidemic.
“My life has been taken away. When I found out that I was HIV positive, the world caved in and I deeply regret what I did. But, now it's too late for me, but I want to warn you. People can be so careless it makes me want to scream, ‘Don't you people care about your lives?’ We have to realize that AIDS is everyone) disease, that everyone can get it, not only gays and lesbians.”
Cases of AIDS appeared about 1980. By 1998, 30 million people had been infected worldwide, the largest concentration being in Africa with 21 million. Currently there are about a million people infected with AIDS in the United States. It is estimated that by the year 2000, the United States will have over 1.5 million cases of AIDS. These figures will change, of course, if effective ways of treating AIDS become available. Death is typically caused by other infections, such as pneumonia and special types of cancer. Because the virus that causes AIDS destroys the body's immune system, the body cannot fight other diseases. Since there is as yet no known cure, this frightening disease can only be fought through prevention. The only sure methods of prevention are abstinence and having sex only with a person who is not infected. There are some practices (like using condoms) that reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk. They make sex safer, but not entirely safe.
AIDS in the News Start a bulletin board about AIDS stories in newspapers and magazines. Highlight new developments in some way, such as making your own headlines for the bulletin board.
Caring for an AIDS patient can be very expensive, and many insurance companies refuse to cover AIDS infected patients. Who should pay for the care and treatment of AIDS patients? Is it fair that insurance companies refuse coverage to AIDS patients? Keep in mind that most AIDS patients die, usually within a few years of the onset of the full-blown disease, so medical interventions merely make a patient more comfortable. They do not provide a cure. Should financial assistance be limited to certain treatments?
The great majority, but not all persons infected with HIV, develop AIDS. About 5% of people infected with the virus do not develop AIDS for ten or more years. For some reason, the bodies of some people seem to be able to protect themselves.
What Do You Want to Know? Write down one to three questions you have about HIV and AIDS. Pass them in to your teacher (with or without your name) for a class discussion.
How Do You Know If a Person Has AIDS?
The various STDs you learned about have specific symptoms. AIDS does not. In fact, AIDS is not a single disease like the other STDs. Instead, its symptoms are those of whatever diseases have invaded the body because of the weakened immune system caused by the AIDS virus.
Nonetheless, there are some common conditions that many AIDS patients experience. For instance, early in the disease, the person may have flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, aches, and pains). However, most of the time, such symptoms are not caused by AIDS. Later in the disease, there is severe weight loss and weakness.
The diagnosis of AIDS is made by matching such symptoms with evidence that the person has been exposed to the AIDS virus. This is determined by a blood test. The test does not detect the virus directly but shows the presence of antibodies created by the body's immune system that have been formed against the AIDS virus. A positive test for AIDS shows that the person has been exposed to the virus-it does not mean that the person already has AIDS.
How Can You Get AIDS?
You can only get AIDS if any of the body fluids of a person who is infected with HIV enters your body. The three body fluids responsible for practically all known cases of AIDS infection are blood, semen, and, to a lesser extent, vaginal fluid (including menstrual blood).
AIDS is a worldwide epidemic, but no one knows for sure how bad the epidemic is because of how long it takes for the virus to become active in the body. Should everyone in the world be tested for HIV so that health officials can get a better idea of how widespread the disease is? What would the implications of universal testing be?
Infected blood is most often transmitted when people who inject drugs into their veins (intravenously) share dirty needles. This is usually done by drug addicts. Much less commonly, people who receive transfusions, or blood given to them for medical reasons, have received infected blood. Blood banks now screen blood for the virus, which greatly reduces the risk. No one can get AIDS by giving blood.
In addition to blood transfusions and intravenous drug use, the AIDS virus can be passed on by an infected mother to her unborn baby through the placenta, an organ in the uterus that allows the transfer of nutrients to and wastes from the developing fetus. A mother may also pass the virus to the baby through her infected milk during breastfeeding.
Society is often unkind to people, including children, who are known to have HIV. It is not uncommon for infected individuals to lose their jobs or be forced out of schools and neighborhoods.
The AIDS virus is passed to another person sexually through infected semen or vaginal fluid. Infected semen can enter the body of the sexual partner through either anal or vaginal intercourse.
It is also important to know how AIDS is not transmitted. It is quite safe to interact with infected individuals socially, in everyday life (without sexual contact or exposure to their blood). Not a single case of AIDS has been shown to occur through casual contact, even among those who have lived in the same house with someone with AIDS. You do not get AIDS by shaking hands or hugging; from toilet seats or swimming pools; from eating in restaurants (even if the cook or the waiter has AIDS); from touching doorknobs, telephones, and so on.
“‘If I had known when I was sixteen what I know now,’ she says, ‘I'd have done everything in my power to avoid getting the virus even if it meant never having sex in my whole life. I mean that.’”
-Krista, 19, Teens with AIDS Speak Out,
Mary Kittredge, A Julian Messner Book
Who Gets AIDS?
The majority of AIDS cases in the United States and Europe are men (80%). AIDS cases are clustered in large cities (especially New York and San Francisco). Among males 48% get infected through homosexual sex, 23% through intravenous drug use, and 7% through heterosexual sex. Among women, heterosexual sex accounts for 40% and intravenous drug use 30%. In the United States, heterosexual transmission of AIDS outside of high-risk groups (bisexual men or drug addicts) has remained less common, although the numbers of these cases have been rising. But this situation may change. The worldwide pattern suggests that heterosexual transmission may become the predominant (most common) mode and women will account for increasing numbers of cases. Whether the United States will also show this pattern remains to be seen.
What groups are at high risk for AIDS? What about their behavior makes them high risk?
There are new drugs like AZT that in combinations slow the growth of the virus in some patients but they do not entirely eliminate it.
AIDS is caused by a virus, not by being a drug addict, being gay, engaging in anal intercourse, or anything else. Such factors merely increase the chances of getting the virus. This is important to keep in mind when we consider the problem of preventing AIDS.
So far, AIDS has not been a common condition among adolescents. However, its prevalence is increasing in this age group. It is also important to realize that young people who develop AIDS in their 20s may have been infected during their teenage years. This delay happens because it may take as many as 10 or more years after getting infected to become sick.
There are several reasons that put adolescents at considerable risk. Adolescents often do not take the risk of disease or pregnancy seriously, and they engage in unprotected sex at a higher rate than other groups. In addition, adolescents participate in other high-risk activities, such as drinking, which affect their judgment about sexual activity and intravenous drug use.
Activity 7-1: Dealing with AIDS
AIDS is one of the most serious problems facing our society. It will become even more serious as it spreads among the adolescent population. Even if the disease does not touch your life directly, it will still affect you as a member of society as we try to take care of its victims and protect those not yet infected. If you were in a situation in which you had the authority to solve this problem what would you do?
Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into four groups and give each group an Activity Report.
Step 2 All of the situations on this Activity Report are very real and very serious problems. There are no quick answers to them, so don't feel frustrated if you can't solve the problems.
Step 3 Your group will be assigned to role-play a group of people who must deal with one aspect of the AIDS epidemic.
Step 4 Your group will share your conclusions with the rest of the class.
A good family friend has just learned she has the AIDS virus but is not yet showing any symptoms. Your parents have invited her over for Thanksgiving. What are your thoughts and concerns? What questions do you have about her visit? About getting AIDS from her? Will it affect your relationship with her? How do you think she will want to have you deal with the fact that she has AIDS?
- What is the difference between AIDS and HIV?
- How can you get AIDS? Give some examples.
- How do you NOT get AIDS?
- Respond to the following statements with either true or false:
- Heterosexuals are not at risk for AIDS.
- AIDS is not caused by being a drug addict, being gay, or engaging in anal intercourse.
- Teenagers aren't at risk for AIDS.
- How can you protect yourself from the AIDS virus?