December 1st is World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people to unite in the fight against HIV and show their support for people living with HIV. Being diagnosed with HIV today means something very different than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Thanks to better treatments, HIV is no longer a death sentence. People with HIV are now living longer and with a better quality of life than ever before. However, people's attitudes continue to make living with HIV hard. This World AIDS Day, learn the facts about HIV and help take a stand against HIV stigma!
HIV can be spread when someone with HIV has unprotected sex or shares injection drug equipment with someone who does not have HIV. An infected mother can also spread it to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breast feeding. HIV cannot be spread by hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, or closed-mouth kissing with someone with HIV. Mosquitoes, ticks, or other blood-sucking insects cannot spread HIV.
There are several different methods that have been proven to be effective in reducing HIV transmission. They include:
- Viral Suppression –Many people living with HIV (PLWH) who take their HIV medicines daily achieve viral suppression. This means that the amount of HIV in the blood is so low that it cannot be detected by routine labs. If a person has an undetectable viral load, the chances of spreading the virus through sex are dramatically reduced. Even though risk is decreased, it is not zero. Keep in mind that viral load can change, and even a brief break from taking medication can increase the viral load.
- PrEP – People who do not have HIV but have an ongoing high risk for HIV infection can take a daily pill that has been proven to reduce the risk of sexual transmission of HIV. People are considered to have a high risk for HIV infection if:
- they are in a relationship with a PLWH
- they have multiple sexual partners and do not consistently use condoms
- they have unprotected sex
Men who have sex with men who have anal sex without a condom should also consider PrEP. It is important to take the medicine exactly as prescribed to keep the risk of HIV transmission low. PrEP does NOT protect against other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) such as syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think PrEP is right for you.
- PEP – People who may have been exposed to HIV can reduce their chances of getting HIV through PEP (post exposure prophylaxis). PEP is medication that must be started within 72 hours of HIV exposure to be most effective. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, contact a healthcare provider right away. Like PrEP, PEP does NOT protect against STIs other than HIV.
- Condoms – Condoms remain one of the most effective methods for sexually active individuals to protect themselves against HIV. They are also the ONLY contraceptive to protect against other STIs. Using condoms in addition with the methods listed above can provide you with the best protection.
Remember – no sex is without risk! These methods all greatly reduce the risk of HIV transmission only when used consistently and correctly, but it is still important to get tested regularly for HIV and other STIs if you are at risk of getting infected. To learn more about HIV, visit www.bphc.org/HIV.