By Sarah Heimerman, Contributor
Every year, 50,000 people living in the United States are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That is roughly one new infection every 10 minutes. Statistics also show many of those affected fall into the college-aged demographic. The CDC estimates 8,294 new cases of HIV in young adults aged 13-24 from 2009 and 9,799 new cases from 2010.
Dr. Jason Coleman, assistant professor in the UNO School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation said several reasons explain why these numbers are on the rise.
“Young people don’t see HIV as a big deal,” he said. “But HIV is a big deal as there is neither a cure nor a vaccine for this disease.”
HIV is not spread through casual contact.
“It is safe to be around someone with HIV,” Coleman said. “You can’t get it through the air.”
HIV causes damage to specific blood cells in the body, which help fight diseases, and is spread through unprotected sexual encounters and unclean needles used for drug use.
In the past, HIV was known as “the gay disease,” but that is incorrect.
“Anyone can get HIV,” Coleman said. “It comes down to the behaviors you engage in.”
Scientists believe humans first contracted HIV after being exposed to the blood of infected chimpanzees in West Africa. Over time, the disease mutated and spread across the continent and the world.
The CDC reports some people infected with HIV have no symptoms while others develop flu-like symptoms.
HIV is measured by viral load, the number of HIV antigens in your blood.
“If someone is infected with HIV and not treated, their viral load could be in the hundreds of thousands,” Coleman said, “making it more likely they will pass the disease to someone else.”
The CDC recommends people begin medication as soon as possible after a positive HIV test. In the past, patients have taken several pills, multiple times a day.
Current medical technology is making it easier to fight HIV. Atripla, a pill taken once daily, has been available to patients since 2006, to help lower viral load.
Once on medication, a patient’s viral load drops, but it doesn’t mean he or she is cured, Coleman said. It simply means there are fewer copies of HIV in the blood, making it less likely to be transmitted.
In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, a daily pill for people who are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV.
Coleman said typically there is a three-month window between initial infection and detection of HIV antigens in the blood. A follow-up test six months after the initial infection is recommended.
“Right now, prevention is the cure and the vaccine,” he said.
UNO Health Services offers free and confidential HIV testing. A simple finger prick can detect antigens in a drop of blood. Results are available within 20 minutes of the test.
“If someone tests positive for HIV, we coordinate the patient to proper medical care,” Coleman said, “and offer help navigating the system.”
One of the best ways to prevent the spread of HIV is to use condoms correctly when engaging in sexual contact.
“As a society, we need to be more supportive to people with HIV,” Coleman said. “We must be willing to talk about it. If not, HIV will remain a taboo subject.”
Coleman volunteered in Zambia with the Peace Corps from 1999-2001. He worked with the local people in rural Zambia on nutrition, maternal and child health and HIV prevention. That experience got him interested in public health, where “you have so many opportunities to have a positive impact.”
Despite medical advances HIV is still around. And, for now, the story is still the same.
“It’s not who you are, it’s what you do,” Coleman said. “and the decisions you make.”