In the second half of the 20th century, modern medicine was able to conquer smallpox and polio. Then, in the 1980s, another public health epidemic reared its ugly head: human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV and AIDS.
We’re not hearing quite as much about them these days, though, so science must have wrestled them under control, right? Wrong.
HIV and AIDS are still very much out there, and people are still getting sick and dying.
This coming Sunday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day, a day for people to be aware that the battle to eradicate the disease is ongoing and far from finished. It’s a chance to show support for folks living with HIV, and to recall those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. It’s been an event since 1988, and was the first-ever global health day.
And in recognition of the day and the effort, the St. Mary’s County Health Department will host an open house next Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at its harm reduction program office at 46035 Signature Lane in Lexington Park. The event will feature free and confidential HIV and hepatitis C screenings. Also, flu shots for those 6 months and older will be offered while supplies last. No reservations are necessary, but you can call 301-862-1680 or see www.smchd.org/harmreduction for more information.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.1 million people in America are now living with HIV — and about 15% of them are unaware that they are infected. Worldwide, some 36.7 million people have HIV. And in the 35 years since the virus was first identified, more than 35 million people have died from HIV or AIDS, so it has made its mark as one of the most deadly pandemics in human history.
According to the Maryland Department of Health, there were 1,040 new diagnoses of HIV infection among people in the state 13 and older in 2018. In all, 32,506 adults and adolescents were living with HIV in Maryland. That puts us at No. 5 in the nation of the number of diagnosed cases per 100,000 people — not a list you want to be on.
Locally, according to the MDH, there were six new HIV cases diagnosed in St. Mary’s in 2017 (the latest year for such statistics), bringing the county’s total of known living infected patients to 169. In Calvert County, five new cases were diagnosed in 2017 for a total of 130. In Charles County, 24 more people were diagnosed with HIV, bringing the number of people living with the infection there to 518.
For anyone who is sexually active, these numbers should be jarring. And it’s important to spread the word that HIV isn’t dead, and it can be absolutely deadly. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care, and that people with certain risk factors get tested more often.
Aside from statistics proving the prevalence of HIV and AIDS is still an issue today, one major reason people should consider getting tested is that most people with HIV don’t realize they have it, as they rarely exhibit symptoms. But knowing you have it can go a long way to helping yourself — and others — as HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, the final stage of an HIV infection that leads to a weakened immune system, inhibiting the body’s ability to ward off even minor infections.
Fortunately, modern treatments for HIV-positive individuals can help those with HIV go on to live full, active lives and keep them from progressing to the AIDS stage. Those most at risk who should consider getting tested, according to the health department, include anyone who has had sex without using a condom (yes, even just once), had sex with more than one partner, previously had a sexually transmitted disease or ever shared a needle with someone.
Of course, anyone can contract HIV — both women and men, both straight and gay. The only way to know for sure if you have it is to get tested.
So if you’re uncertain of your status, find out. Knowledge is the first step. HIV is no longer a grim specter and a certain death sentence. But even though the battlefield has shifted, the fight against this preventable disease must go on.