Friday, December 16, 2016

Chimpanzees, Condoms, and Confusion: The Biology of AIDS

As we near the end of December, the Holidays, and the New Year, let’s remember that this is also an important month for AIDS education. As a community the more we learn about AIDS the better we are able to prevent it. Knowledge encourages testing and decreases discrimination against people who live with the disease. AIDS awareness is key in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

For example, did you know the only way to tell if you have “HIV/AIDS” is to get tested? Getting tested is really simple; just a quick finger prick and then results in as few as as one to two days. Free HIV testing is available at community clinics such as the Norfolk Department of Health Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) Clinic. Here at Norfolk State University students can get tested at the Spartan Health Clinic.  

Did you know that not everyone who has HIV develops AIDS? Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) develops when your immune system is so badly damaged by HIV that your body can no longer protect itself from opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections are simple viruses and bacteria that take host in your body because of the newly weakened immune system. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

Since the only way to contract AIDS is through HIV, the only method of prevention is to protect yourself from this virus.  HIV spreads through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, rectal fluid, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. The disease can spread by sexual intercourse, but it can also pass from mother to child during childbirth, pregnancy or breastfeeding. As such, the high number of African-American women of childbearing age diagnosed with AIDS is of dire concern for our communities.

What can we do to prevent this disease from destroying our communities one generation after another? Prevention happens by using condoms during all types of intercourse (vagina, anal, and oral), using a condom during all parts of intercourse (pre-seminal fluids can be an issue as well), asking to see test results, limiting sexual partners, having less risky sex, not sharing needles for injecting drugs, and of course getting tested for all STDs/STIs.

There are individuals who are at higher risk of HIV than others and those individuals can take special HIV medication. PrEP is an HIV prevention option for people who don’t have HIV but who are at high-risk of becoming infected with HIV. PrEP involves taking a specific HIV medicine every day. PrEP is not used to replace other prevention methods.

What are some myths about AIDS? Despite popular belief, you cannot contract HIV/AIDS through toilet seats, touching, or kissing. With tattoos and piercings, even though a needle is involved, the only way to contract the disease is if the artist re-uses a needle previously used on an individual with HIV. Also, just because an individual is homosexual doesn’t mean they have HIV/AIDS nor does it mean they started the disease.

Where does AIDS come from then? Scientists identified a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa as the source of HIV infection in humans. The chimpanzee version of the virus called simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV was transmitted to humans probably as early as 1800s and mutated into HIV. The virus slowly spread across Africa and into other parts of the world.

As your immune system protects you against sickness and keeps you functioning, having the knowledge about HIV/AIDS allows you to better equip yourself with the necessary tools to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. So go learn, and Behold Biology NSU!

  1. Office of AIDS/HIV and Infectious Diseases. 
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “HIV/AIDS”
  3. Factretriever. “71 Important Facts About HIV/AIDS”  

Author: Kharissa J Bradley
Edited by: Aylin Marz, Ph.D.