What is HIV? Early HIV symptoms can be very similar to the flu but the only sure-fire way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.
This week LetsGetChecked highlights the question of "What Is HIV?"
There are many misconceptions around the virus and what it can mean if someone receives a diagnosis. LetsGetChecked is joined by Trinity K Bonet, to break down stigmas and misconceptions through the telling of her sexual health story in honour of Sexual Health Awareness Month.
- What is HIV?
- What Is HIV?: The Symptoms
- What Is HIV?: PrEp & Positive Findings
- What is HIV?: An Interview With Trinity K Bonet
- How do I test for HIV?
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a blood borne virus that is transmitted predominantly through sexual exposure, by bodily fluids, namely semen and vaginal fluid. It can also be spread by sharing needles or receiving infected blood products. A mother may pass the virus onto her baby during pregnancy, delivery or by breastfeeding.
Put simply, the virus attacks the immune system allowing other viruses an easy passage into the body.
The main difference between HIV and AIDS is that HIV is classified as a virus, which can continue to develop in those who have the virus and be transmitted to those who don’t. AIDS is classified as a condition or group of conditions that weaken the immune system and is also known as Stage 3 HIV.
HIV and AIDS can cause a deterioration of the immune system’s ability to fight disease. Untreated HIV may to develop AIDS which puts sufferers at a greater risk of contracting opportunistic infections.
Untreated HIV stimulates an immune response to attack CD4 cells. CD4 cells are responsible for the regulation of immune reactions and activating the cells involved in the innate immune system. Diagnosis of AIDS may be measured through CD4 cells. If your number of CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), your diagnosis will be classified as AIDS.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. A syndrome refers to a group of conditions that one can suffer from at one time, which aptly describes what it may feel like to suffer from HIV or AIDS.
According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, there were 38,500 new HIV cases in 2016.
HIV Diagnoses in the United States for the Most-Affected Subpopulations
(Inforgraphic Source:Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. Year: 2016)
The most affected sub-populations in order of incidence are:
- Black, male-to-male sexual contact
- Hispanic/Latino, male-to-male sexual contact
- White, male-to-male sexual contact
- Black women, heterosexual contact
- Black men, heterosexual contact
- White women, heterosexual contact
- Hispanic/Latino, heterosexual contact
What Is HIV?:The Symptoms
HIV symptoms vary depending on the person and what stage of the disease they are in.
Primary infection (Acute HIV)
In the primary infection stage, people generally experience flu-like symptoms within a month or two after the virus enters the body. This process is referred to as "seroconversion."
Seroconversion symptoms include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
You should not assume you have HIV just because you have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. And some people who have HIV may be asymptomatic for years.
Anyone who is sexually active should get checked regularly for HIV. If caught early, HIV positive people with the correct medication can live a relatively normal life with a normal life expectancy.
Latent HIV Symptoms
After seroconversion, the disease moves into a dormant state. During this stage, HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People may not have any HIV symptoms during this time, but it is important to note someone can still transmit HIV during this stage. This stage can last 10 years or longer, but some patients progress through latent HIV at a faster rate.
During the latent stage, the virus is continually breaking down the body’s immune system. After enough damage has been done to the immune system, an infected person may start to experience symptoms of a weakened immune system such as:
- Oral candida/thrush
- Recurrent diarrhoea
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
- Oral or genital ulcers
- Recurrent or persistent warts
- Skin problems
Remember that each of these symptoms can also be related to other illnesses. Therefore the only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested.
Progression to Late-Stage HIV/AIDS
If HIV is not treated, eventually the virus will have damaged the body’s immune system to such a degree that it will progress to Late-Stage HIV otherwise known as AIDS. Many of the most severe symptoms that Late-Stage HIV patients can experience come from opportunistic infections that attack and take advantage of the patient’s damaged immune system, such examples include tuberculosis (TB) or lymphoma.
Watch: What is HIV? | How is HIV Transmitted? With Dr. Dominic Rowley
What Is HIV?: PrEp & Positive Findings
Australian studies have come forward with positive findings that illustrate that taking preventative measures could drastically improve the quality of life for those who are HIV positive.
The University of New South Wales, Sydney reports that 92% of HIV positive gay and bisexual men are experiencing an undetectable viral load, as a result of successful antiretroviral treatment, or antiretroviral drugs known as ARV.
A viral load is defined as the level of HIV infection in the body at a given time. Someone who may have been diagnosed with HIV is said to have an "undetectable load" when there is a 0% risk associated with transmitting the infection to their sexual partner(s). Breaking a success record for the third year running, the study reports that over 90% of men can no longer transmit HIV.
Another report illustrates that the numbers of those taking preventative measures when it comes to HIV and AIDs is increasing year on year. An Annual Surveillance Report reports that the number of gay men taking PrEp as a preventative measure increased from 1% in 2013 to 16% in 2017. It is hypothesized that the uptake in those taking PrEp was encouraged by public health funding in 2016.
The Kirby Institute reports that heterosexual people make up 20% of HIV diagnoses but 55% of heterosexuals are diagnosed with HIV late, which could indicate that greater preventative awareness campaigns are necessary for this demographic.
HIV diagnosis and prognosis among women who have sex with women is largely undocumented. There is a lower risk of HIV and AIDS transmission among lesbians or women who have sex with women according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention who state:
"The well documented risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV shows that vaginal secretions and menstrual blood may contain the virus and that mucous membrane (e.g., oral, vaginal) exposure to these secretions has the potential to lead to HIV infection."
This doesn't mean it can be ruled out. Lesbians and bisexual women are still at risk, especially if they have had or have sex with men on a regular basis, use or share needles for drug-use purposes, are frequently in a medical setting, have tattoos or engage in sexual practices that may draw blood or bodily fluids.
The only way to fully protect yourself, regardless of your sexual orientation is to get tested on a regular basis. The CDC recommends that everyone between the age of 13 and 64 is tested at least once a year as part of their health routine. Those who are perceived as "high risk" should get tested every three months. High risk demographics depend on sexuality, lifestyle factors and family history.
What is HIV?: An Interview With Trinity K Bonet
Trinity K Bonet, also known as Joshua Jones was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 saying “It was a random check up that caught it. I was lucky to catch it while my numbers were still in normal range.”
Bonet first spoke of her diagnosis during Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Today, she is a HIV/AIDs awareness and prevention advocate and joins LetsGetChecked to share her experience of living with HIV, how she dealt with her diagnosis and how she hopes to break down stigmas associated with HIV today through her advocacy for sexual health.
"You only live once! Do all you can while you can. Live life with purpose and on purpose."
What one piece of advice would you give to Trinity K before you became Trinity K?
My advice would be to pick a unisex name. Kind of like Ru. Being constantly referred to as Trinity comes with its own set of issues.
What symptoms did you have in the lead up to your diagnosis?
I didn’t have any symptoms before being diagnosed. After I found out I didn’t get depressed or down on myself. I knew it was something i had to deal with. I was fortunate to be diagnosed and prescribed a medication which doesn’t include negative side effects for me.
Do you think it’s important to use your experience to raise awareness for others who may be living with HIV?
Absolutely! I feel that was the purpose of being given this platform. The only way we can erase the stigmas associated with HIV is to educate those that aren't aware of what HIV is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.
Why did you become an advocate?
To whom much is given much is required. Being that I have a platform such as Rupaul's Drag Race, it’s important that I use that platform to better the life of those around me. HIV advocacy is how I chose to be of help to my community.
What was the first thing that went through your head when you received your results?
I just wanted to know what I needed to do to stay alive. Since then I have been apart of many panels talking to teens about HIV. I have headlined fundraisers to support this great cause. On December 1, 2018 which is World AIDS Day I will be hosting Rock The Know 2018 which is a Red Ribbon fashion show in Atlanta Ga. We will raise money and of course, offer free HIV testing, as well as give out information regarding local programs that are available for those that may have been diagnosed with HIV as I have.
You work with Lambda Legal - what do you hope to achieve with this organization?
I hope to be able to do even more to support work for the LGBTQIA and Trans communities. Lambda Legal has been on the front lines fighting for equality for our community. I am honored to be apart of such a great organization. I have partnered with Lambda Legal to raise awareness amongst the drag and gender nonconforming communities. I was blessed to become the face of Lambda Legal for a It’s DragCon NYC 2018 Activation.
Do you think there is still a stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases?
Yes there is. That’s why some people would rather not know. Out of sight is out of mind. That’s definitely not a good thing when it comes to HIV.
"Knowledge is power. Power to love yourself and power to live a healthy life."
Do you think there is a lack of knowledge surrounding LGBT sexual health, particularly for those who are making a gender transition?
Not everyone knows everything. It’s our job as advocates to educate them. Even with the knowledge, you have to have the mindset to do better. Many people know that unprotected sex puts you at risk but they still have unprotected sex. It’s not always about a lack of knowledge. Some people have impulsive natures and will take risks regardless of the information or facts they may have knowledge of.
What can or should be done to combat this lack of awareness?
Inform them. Make them aware. It all boils back down to educating them and hoping they do what’s necessary after that. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
Have you ever faced discrimination because of your diagnosis?
Many times. I’ve been shamed for being positive. I’ve been trolled online for admitting that I still have sex. My status does not prevent me from having sex. There are condoms. PrEp and Pep (Pre-exposure prophylaxis is the use of preventative drugs, which should be taken by people who have not yet been exposed to a virus). I take my Genvoya daily and I am currently undetectable.
What advice would you give to someone who has just found out they are HIV positive?
Get into treatment. It’s as simple as a pill a day. Don’t worry about people’s perception of you.
"Continue to live or start living!"
What would you like to see happen around sexual health discourse and how people view and tackle the stigma around sexual health?
I’d like to see a time where there is no stigma and people can live their lives without judgement.
How do think this change can be made?
Each one teach one. If we take time to educate those around us we can be apart of the change that is needed.
“I’d like to encourage everyone reading to take care of yourselves. If you are positive you can still live a great life.”
How do I test for HIV?
Testing for HIV requires a small blood sample. You can get a home-test online or at your pharmacy, or you can visit your local clinic.
Read: Living with HIV.
Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley