What’s the Issue?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks T-cells or CD4 cells, which the body needs to fight infections and disease. If HIV successfully destroys enough of these cells, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). People with AIDS have severely damaged immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to infection and disease.

HIV can be passed from person to person by way of blood, breast milk, vaginal fluid, semen, and rectal mucous. The most common ways a person can be infected by HIV include: having unprotected sex with an infected person; sharing drug needles; during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding if the mother is infected; occupational exposure; or from an infected blood transfusion or organ transplant (though this is rare).

Most of the symptoms people have are a result of “opportunistic infections,” which take advantage of the body’s damaged immune system. Others experience acute retroviral syndrome (ARS), also called primary HIV infection, which is the body’s response to HIV and is often described as “the worst flu ever.” This can occur 2-4 weeks or up to 3 months after contracting HIV.

Some people infected with HIV do not exhibit any symptoms until the virus has progressed to AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS include: diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, fever, chills, night sweats, and wasting syndrome.

Why Should I Care?

US Statistics for Women and HIV/AIDS (amfAR):

  • Women account for one in four new HIV diagnoses and deaths caused by AIDS.
  • The proportion of AIDS diagnoses reported among women has more than tripled since 1985.
  • The vast majority of women diagnosed with HIV contracted the virus through heterosexual sex.
  • African Americans constituted 64 percent of women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2009.
  • African Americans and Hispanics represent 26 percent of all women in the U.S. but they account for 82 percent of AIDS cases among women.
  • African-American women have an HIV prevalence rate nearly 15 times that of white women.

Globally, half of all people living with HIV/AIDS are women. It is easier for women to get HIV from men than vice versa, but both occur.

What Can I Do?

If you engage in sexual intercourse, protect yourself – use latex condoms properly and consistently. Limit your number of sexual partners – the more you have, the higher your risk. Get tested for HIV and other STDs and encourage your partner(s) too as well. Or abstain from sexual activity, or only participate in sexual activities with a mutually monogamous uninfected partner. Abstain from drug use but if you must, always use clean needles.

If you know you have been exposed to HIV, seek treatment immediately – there are cases in which, if caught early enough, HIV infection can be prevented. While there is still no cure for HIV, there are different treatment options available. Talk to your health care provider about how to make healthy decisions and lower your risk of HIV.

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