At first unnamed, HIV and the condition that back then it invariably developed into, AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, hit the gay community hard, and specifically gay men.
Many began to develop severe cases of pneumonia and a type of skin cancer called Kaposi sarcoma that previously had been known to strike mostly older men of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritage.
Eventually, AIDS had a name but still no cure. The world was shocked when heartthrob actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS. It did not stop there. Elizabeth Glaser, the wife of “Starsky and Hutch” actor Paul Michael Glaser, developed AIDS after a blood transfusion and unknowingly passed the disease to the couple’s two children. She and her daughter died. And a young Indiana boy named Ryan White, who had hemophilia and got HIV through blood products, attracted national attention when he was not allowed to return to school. He passed away in 1990.
Some people were terrified of catching HIV, although it is not a disease one can get casually. Instead, it is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, semen and breast milk during actions such as drug users sharing needles, sex and breastfeeding.
Then, in 1987, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug AZT, and that treatment and other antiretroviral therapies gave people with HIV a new lease on life. For many, HIV became a condition that could be managed, although the tide did not turn immediately. Very few people who heard basketball star Magic Johnson announce in 1991 that he had been diagnosed with HIV would have thought that he would still be around 26 years later, living a healthy and happy life. But he is.
It’s great that there are drugs that treat HIV, and that people can also take advantage of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, in which they take HIV drugs to lower their risk of developing the disease. But in 2017, 35 years after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began referring to the disease as AIDS, younger people do not have the same memories of the early, horrific days of the illness.
Some health care providers worry that they have become complacent in their vigilance against HIV. Ways to avoid HIV including evaluating sexual partners, using condoms and not sharing needles if you are an intravenous drug user. The latter method is especially problematic as the country—especially in West Virginia—is experiencing an unprecedented opioid epidemic.
For nearly 30 years, since 1988, Dec. 1 has been recognized as World AIDS Day so that people around the globe can unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
This year, to commemorate World AIDS Day, which is this Friday, the Monongalia County Health Department’s Clinical Services program will hold an HIV Testing Clinic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6. Anyone can walk in and receive the OraQuick test, which consists of a mouth swab, and get the results in 20 minutes. Anyone with positive results will be linked with care.
Who should get tested? The CDC recommends that everyone ages 13 to 64 be tested for HIV at least once. Some sexually active gay men should consider more frequent testing, as often as every three to six months. Pregnant women should be tested as well.
You should be tested once a year if: You’re a sexually active gay or bisexual man; you’ve had sex with an HIV-positive partner; you’ve had more than one partner since your last HIV test; you’ve shared needles to inject drugs; you’ve exchanged sex for drugs or money; you have another sexually transmitted disease, hepatitis or tuberculosis; or if you’ve had sex with anyone who has done anything listed above or with someone whose sexual history you don’t know.
About 1 in 7 people in the United States who have HIV don’t know it. The sooner you know about it, the sooner you can go on drugs that will help manage it.
Testing for STDs is always free at MCHD Clinical Services, and if you can’t make it to the clinic on Wednesday, feel free to call us at 304-598-5119 to make an appointment for another day for the test.
Researchers have made a lot of strides in HIV therapies, but now is not the time to let up our guard against this condition. We need to do our part to avoid situations that expose us to HIV in the first place. And if you’ve never had an HIV test, now is the time to consider it.