By Deneece Ferrales
Over the past year and a half, I have heard the phrase “once in a lifetime pandemic” in several different contexts referring to COVID. However, many of us remember the other great pandemic of our lifetime, HIV/AIDS.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the ’80s, remember how people died almost without warning from this strange new disease. In those early days, little was known about the spread of HIV/AIDS. We were not sure if we could shake hands with others, hug others, even use public restrooms.
There was no vaccine development and pharmaceuticals to help manage the disease for the first decade of the HIV pandemic. And the scariest part was that there was no known cure and contracting HIV was most certainly a death sentence.
Every year on Dec. 1, we observe World AIDS Day. The purpose of the day is for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for those living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Globally, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS-related illnesses, which makes it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
World AIDS Day was first observed in 1988 and has become the longest running disease awareness initiative of its kind. World AIDS Day is observed by wearing a red ribbon and by encouraging HIV testing.
New cases of HIV infection continue to emerge each year. As of 2019, 97,844 people were living with HIV in Texas. HIV disproportionately affects minority communities. In Texas, African Americans make up 36.6% of those living with HIV, and Hispanics make up 34.3%, while Whites make up 23.7%. The following two graphs demonstrate the higher risk of HIV infection for Blacks and Hispanics.
While men are still more likely to contract HIV and new cases of transmission affect Hispanic men, Black men, and White men (in that order), Black women are disproportionately represented in the number of new HIV cases as represented by the graph below.
Further, it is important to note that people who are HIV+ are not limited to those that have participated in male-to-male sexual contact or intravenous drug use as many people believe. In McLennan County, heterosexual contact is second only to male-to-male contact as the method of transmission. The graph below demonstrates the transmission methods in McLennan County for all persons living with HIV.
Symptoms of HIV infection resemble the flu and may include fever, chills, a rash, muscle aches, a sore throat, or general fatigue. If left untreated, over time, HIV will weaken the immune system. This leaves the body unable to protect itself from disease and some cancers. Over time, the body’s immune system becomes so weak that infections begin to attack the body, which can lead to death. Further, HIV can be transmitted from mother to child in pregnant women.
Fortunately, being HIV+ is no longer a death sentence. Due to developments in research, AIDS is a chronic disease that is manageable. HIV medication is much more effective when treated early before symptoms emerge. In fact, if you know that you have been exposed, there are now drugs (PrEP and PEP) that can be taken before or immediately after exposure to reduce the risk of becoming HIV+.
Universal testing has been the key element that has reduced the number of new infections per year, changing HIV from a pandemic to an epidemic. Not only does testing reduce community transmission, knowing your status is the first step to HIV management. Approximately 1.2 million people in the U.S. have HIV. About 13 percent of them don’t know it and need testing (source: HIV.gov).
Knowing your status is easy! The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District offers HIV testing at their clinic, 225 W. Waco Dr., Ste. 209. The clinic is open 8:30 a.m-3:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. To make it even easier, the clinic is offering FREE TESTING in honor or World AIDS Day. The event will be held December 3 at the address above.
Special thanks to Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D. and director of research and community impact with Prosper Waco, for the graphs and statistical information.
Deneece Ferrales, Ph.D., is director of health initiatives with Prosper Waco.