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Although the HIV virus has been around for a while, health officials say the public still knows very little about how it is contracted or how to avoid coming into contact with the disease.
Debra Wade, director of the WINGS Clinic in Louisville, which that with infectious diseases, says that the number of persons infected with the Human Immuno Deficiency Virus increases each year.
“The general public seems to think that AIDS [Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome] is not the issue that it was in years past,” she said. “People have assumed that because fewer people are dying of it that there are fewer people getting infected. The truth is that now we can keep them alive longer with medication.”
Wade said the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that 60,000 people contact HIV each year in the United States alone.
“People are getting infected right and left, and we're seeing more and more older people getting it—thank you, Viagra,” she said.
“Older men don't think they're old anymore, and so they're behaving like adolescents. They might be married to a 60-year-old woman like themselves, but they want to have sex with a 30-year-old woman. And women stop using protection around 60, because they figure since they can't get pregnant anymore, they have nothing to worry about. Well, that's not true.”
Wade said people of all ages, of all walks of life, are getting HIV.
There are three major ways of becoming infected:
• Blood to blood contact.
• Mother to unborn child contact.
• Unprotected sex.
Wade explained that with the last category, people who engage in anal sex are at the most risk for contracting the disease.
“Anal sex is the culprit because the anus is anatomically designed for things to go out, not come in,” she said. “The lining of the anus is a very thin membrane, and underneath are millions of tiny blood vessels. So there's no way to have anal sex without blood.”
Wade said it can take as long as 10 years for symptoms of HIV to surface if left untreated. In the beginning, a person can be infected, but they can look healthy and feel healthy.
“But the virus is there,” she said. “It's not dormant, it's active—and replicating constantly.”
She added that the virus is not always visible on infected people.
“Not everybody has lesions,” she said. “But for every one you see, there are many more on the inside for every one that has popped out.”
Wade said there are currently 1,300 people being treated in the WINGS clinic, including 350 women with HIV.
“Almost all the women got it heterosexually from unfaithful men,” she said.
She added that a person is more likely to contract HIV if they have had a sexually transmitted disease because they compromise the immune system.
“And there are about 20 common STDs around that have few or no symptoms,” she said.
Wade said there are many myths floating around about contracting HIV that aren't true. For example, one cannot contract HIV through a mosquito bite, or through eating or drinking after someone who is infected. The bodily fluids of semen and blood are ways that the virus is passed. Even though the virus is present in saliva as well, Wade said the enzymes in saliva that help to break down food also dissolve the virus.
Also, HIV can also be contracted through normal, heterosexual sex if one partner is infected.
“You can have sex with someone who is HIV positive and not get infected, but it's like playing Russian Roulette,” she said.
Wade said the way to protect oneself from HIV is to take the following steps:
• Be as healthy as possible
• Use a condom
• Do not have sex with multiple partners
• Make sure, as much as possible, that your partner is faithful
For more information about HIV, visit www.hrsa.org.