Understanding HIV: Key Information and Prevention Strategies

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that causes the immune system to fail. If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a condition where the immune system is severely weakened, making individuals susceptible to life-threatening infections and cancers. 

As of 2021, it’s estimated that at least 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, 87% of whom are aware that they have it. With early diagnosis and proper medical care, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives, effectively managing the virus with antiretroviral therapy.

Here are five fast facts everyone should know about HIV.

1) The HIV epidemic began in the 1980s

If you’re wondering when did HIV emerge in the population, presumably in the early 20th century.

But in the 1980s, doctors were baffled by an epidemic of rare infections and cancers appearing in otherwise healthy men. Every year, more and more patients seem to contract the disease, especially in the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa. For years, scientists struggled to identify the cause of the epidemic.

In 1983, researchers at Pasteur Institute in France isolated a new retrovirus from lymph node biopsies of AIDS patients that they named lymphadenopathy-associated virus. At the same time, Dr. Robert Gallo and his team at the National Cancer Institute discovered a similar retrovirus they called human T-cell lymphotropic virus type III. These two discoveries laid the groundwork for the isolation of HIV in 1985.

Even after they identified HIV and noted that blood transfusion recipients, IV drug users, and men who had sex with men (MSM) were at a higher risk than the rest of the population, researchers struggled to find an effective treatment for a long time.

2) HIV can transition into AIDS 

HIV is a virus that progressively attacks the immune system. It primarily targets CD4 cells, which play a key role in coordinating the body's immune response to infections.

As HIV replicates and spreads throughout the body, it gradually depletes CD4 cell count. This reduces the immune system's ability to defend against opportunistic infections and cancers. 

When CD4 cells fall below 200, patients meet the criteria for AIDS, which means they have a much higher risk of contracting a life-threatening infection or cancer.

How long does it take HIV to turn into AIDS? Without treatment, the progression from HIV to AIDS typically takes several years, though this can vary from person to person. This can be delayed or prevented when diagnosed early and antiretroviral therapy is started.

3) There have been advancements in HIV therapy

For a decade after HIV was discovered, there was no effective treatment to stall the progression of HIV. The only option doctors had was to give patients antibiotics or antifungal medications once they had an AIDS-related infection.

In 1996, the first antiretroviral drugs were developed. When several antiretroviral medications were taken in combination (also known as a "cocktail"), researchers saw a dramatic slowing of the progression from HIV to AIDS. 

That year, AIDS-related deaths dropped by a whopping 42%, and have continued to fall since then. The latest HIV treatment continues to be antiretroviral therapy.

4) AIDS mortality has declined, yet new HIV infections persist

The good news is that with the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) drugs available now, AIDS deaths have continued to decline in the U.S. and around the world. The standardized AIDS mortality rate decreased from 2.46 per 100,000 in 2018 down to 2.08 per 100,000 in 2021.

However, when HIV treatment became available, many people became less afraid of contracting the virus, so condom use has steadily declined over the past two decades. As a result, other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are increasing. 

The CDC reports a 7% reduction in the annual number of new diagnoses between 2017 and 2021. However, HIV continues to be widely transmitted, and practicing safe sex remains incredibly important and effective.

5) There are effective strategies for HIV prevention

Not only are there effective HIV treatments but many HIV infections can be prevented when people take proper precautions.

Condoms are inexpensive, readily available, and are more than 80% effective in preventing HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections, when used properly.

Additionally, a medication called Truvada is now available to help prevent HIV infections when patients take one tablet a day. As people have become more aware of this option, the number of Truvada users in the U.S., comprised mainly of men who have sex with men, has risen 880% since 2012! This HIV-prevention measure, known as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), is 99% effective in preventing HIV as long as patients don’t miss any doses.

If patients have a known exposure to HIV, such as unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person or a needlestick with an HIV-infected needle, there’s a combination of medications known as PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) that can be taken every day for 28 days. 

PEP helps lower the risk of contracting HIV. It’s important to note that PEP must be started within 72 hours of the exposure, and the earlier it’s started, the more effective it is.

Your sexual health matters: We can help

Our urgent care centers are ready and equipped to help you stay healthy. This includes education on ways to prevent HIV and offering HIV testing at all of our centers. We can also screen for other sexually transmitted infections.