Though December is the official Aid Awareness Month, I think it is important to recognize how HIV and AIDS affect our world every day.
Since HIV became known to America around the 1970’s, there has been a lot of panic, fear, discrimination, and misinformation spread by all of us. Though I’m not going to write a history lesson on the origins of HIV (quite frankly the exact origins are still unknown) I can clarify this- HIV and AIDS were not brought on to punish Africans for “having sex with monkeys” and this disease is not a “gay plague” meant to punish gays for their sexual orientation. As racist, homophobic, and ridiculous as those two statements sound, some people still believe them to be true.
It is important to understand what HIV is and what we know about it. HIV, an abbreviation for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a type of retrovirus that attacks the cells that make up the human immune system. This retrovirus can affect anyone, straight, gay, white, black, Hispanic, religious, non-religious, old, young, male or female; to HIV we are all equal, and all prey. Once HIV finds immune system cells in our body, it destroys them or changes their function to better suit the virus’s needs. As HIV takes over more and more immune cells, the virus begins to destroy the entire immune system, leaving the person infected with a suppressed immune system, what is referred to as “immune deficiency”. Once a person has this immune deficiency, they become what is known as immunodeficient, and their body can no longer fight off infections or diseases; leaving them susceptible to serious illness. Immunodeficient people can also become ill with very rare illnesses because of the body’s inability to fight off infection. When a person’s entire immune system is overrun by illness and disease that cannot be fought off, it is at this point that they progress to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
After the body’s immune system has reached the limit of its working capacity, and is no longer able to fight off disease, this is when a person is characterized as having full blown AIDS. Once a person progresses to full blown AIDS it can become very difficult to care for their symptoms, and care usually turns to end-of-life-care. Though AIDS is very rarely manageable, HIV can still be managed with drug therapies and proper medical care, and those infected can live a long time before the onset of AIDS.
The first, and most important step before any type of consideration for HIV and AIDS care on your part, is to understand HIV PREVENTION. HIV is a preventable disease that does not need to spread from person to person. Abstinence is an option, but for those of us who choose to be sexually active, our primary concern should be with protection. Always use a condom, and know how to properly use that condom. There are a variety of male and female condoms to choose from and are readily available- keep some in your bed stand, and even your purse (protected from puncture- avoid keeping condoms in wallets where they can break down or become punctured). Maintaining a monogamous relationship is also a safer choice than frequently having ‘one night stands’ or casual sex partners. Also keep in mind; if you are single and frequenting bars, it is likely that you may come home with a stranger- sex and alcohol DO NOT mix. One night of unprotected sex may change your life forever. The only “safe” unprotected activities you could take part in with a new sexual partner are kissing or erotic massage- don’t chance your safety just to go a litter further.
If you maintain a monogamous relationship, that does not mean you are 100% safe. Before taking part in unprotected sex with your partner, make sure that you are both committed to one another and cheating will not be an issue, and that you have both been tested for HIV. You or your partner may have become infected and never knew it happened.
HIV can also be contracted through drug use, such as sharing needles. There are clean needle programs across the country, where you can safely exchange needles without fear of infection or legal ramifications. Sharing needles is never an option, and you should always have an extra on hand in case the need for your drug overwhelms your ability to make proper choices.
Although sexual contact and drug related infection are the two most common means of infection, it is also possible to contract HIV through blood contact. HIV can be transmitted through blood, so it is very important that you protect yourself before helping anyone who is bleeding. If you work in an office building or a school, make sure you know where latex gloves are readily available in the chance that someone suffers a cut, or bloody nose that requires assistance. Be sure to always protect open cuts or breaks on your skin (also eyes and mouth) from coming into contact with blood from other people.
If you think you have been exposed to HIV, there are many facilities that can provide free confidential testing; you can step into any hospital, health department or clinic and be provided with HIV testing. Because this testing works by detecting antibodies in your body and not the HIV virus itself, there is a wait period before testing is appropriate for you. If you have been exposed to HIV you must wait around three months before antibodies will be detected in your body. If you are certain you have been exposed to HIV, and your test came back negative, it is a good idea to have another follow up test in another 3-6 months- in case the antibodies did not have time to build up in your system. Of course this time can be nerve-wracking but it is very important to get tested, if not only for your own health and safety, but for the health and safety of your sexual partners.
For those struggling with their battles against HIV, research is constantly being done to fight off this disease. New research coming out of California is beginning to look like a potential weapon against infection. Marie McCullough, an Inquirer Staff Writer, recently published this article on HIV therapy:
Penn gene therapist unveils potential HIV weapon
In a feat that is renewing hopes for conquering AIDS, researchers have genetically engineered vital immune cells to make them resistant to HIV infection.
To confer this invulnerability, scientists took the immune cells, called T cells, from HIV-positive patients’ own blood, then snipped out a single gene – the first time such a precise alteration has been achieved on a meaningful scale.
Put back into the patients, the modified T cells were no longer able to make a particular protein that HIV grabs – like a molecular door knob – to enter the cells that it ravages.
At an AIDS conference in Boston on Wednesday, University of Pennsylvania gene therapy expert Carl June presented data from nine HIV-positive patients who received the novel treatment in Philadelphia, New York, and California beginning in July 2009.
The engineered cells not only defied HIV infection in all nine patients, the cells multiplied dramatically in eight patients – in one case, accounting for six percent of the patient’s total T cell supply. In addition to the blood, the T cells were found in tissue in the patients’ guts, an area of the body where HIV builds a reservoir.
June, who has worked on other experimental gene therapies for HIV, said the new approach “shows the most promise of any yet tested.”
“It’s a big accomplishment because this is the first successful attempt at genetic editing,” he said. “It gives us an essential tool.”
That tool – called “zinc fingers” because an atom of zinc binds to two loops of proteins – has been developed by Sangamo Biosciences of Richmond, Calif., the small biotech company that is funding human testing of the engineered T cells.
Zinc fingers are able to recognize specific sequences of DNA. By attaching a protein that cuts DNA, scientists can use zinc fingers like molecular scissors, cutting and then deleting – or inserting – genes. Until now, gene therapy has been imprecise, relying on viruses to insert genes somewhat randomly into a cell’s DNA.
“This is elegant work, scientifically very sound, and an important ‘proof of concept,'” said Anthony Fauci, an AIDS research pioneer at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the lab research that laid the groundwork for the human studies.
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