Is there a cure for AIDS?
There is still no cure for AIDS. And while new drugs are helping some people who have HIV live longer, healthier lives, there are many problems associated with them:
- Anti-HIV drugs are highly toxic and can cause serious side effects, including heart damage, kidney failure, and osteoporosis. Many (perhaps even most) patients cannot tolerate long-term treatment with HAART.
- HIV mutates quickly. Even among those who do well on HAART, roughly half of patients experience treatment failure within a year or two, often because the virus develops resistance to existing drugs. In fact, as many as 10 to 20 percent of newly infected Americans are acquiring viral strains that may already be resistant to current drugs.
- Because treatment regimens are unpleasant and complex, many patients miss doses of their medication. Failure to take anti-HIV drugs on schedule and in the prescribed dosage encourages the development of new drug-resistant viral strains.
- Even when patients respond well to treatment, HAART does not eradicate HIV. The virus continues to replicate at low levels and often remains hidden in “reservoirs” in the body, such as in the lymph nodes and brain.
In theU.S., the number of AIDS-related deaths has decreased dramatically because of widely available, potent treatments. But more than 95 percent of all people with HIV/AIDS live in the developing world, and many have little or no access to treatment.
Is there a vaccine to prevent HIV infection?
Despite continued intensive research, experts believe it will be at least a decade before we have a safe, effective, and affordable AIDS vaccine. And even after a vaccine is developed, it will take many years before the millions of people at risk of HIV infection worldwide can be immunized. Until then, other HIV prevention methods, such as practicing safer sex and using sterile syringes, will remain critical.
Can you tell whether someone has HIV or AIDS?
You cannot tell by looking at someone whether he or she is infected with HIV or has AIDS. An infected person can appear completely healthy. But anyone infected with HIV can infect other people, even if they have no symptoms.
How can I know if I’m infected?
Immediately after infection, some people may develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistently swollen glands. Even if you look and feel healthy, you may be infected. The only way to know your HIV status for sure is to be tested for HIV antibodies—proteins the body produces in an effort to fight off infection. This usually requires a blood sample. If a person’s blood has HIV antibodies that means the person is infected.
Should I get tested?
If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested as soon as possible. Here’s why:
- Even in the early stages of infection, you can take concrete steps to protect your long-term health. Regular check-ups with a doctor who has experience with HIV/AIDS will enable you (and your family members or loved ones) to make the best decisions about whether and when to begin anti-HIV treatment, without waiting until you get sick.
- Taking an active approach to managing HIV may give you many more years of healthy life than you would otherwise have.
- If you are HIV positive, you will be able to take the precautions necessary to protect others from becoming infected.
- If you are HIV positive and pregnant, you can take medications and other precautions to significantly reduce the risk of infecting your infant, including not breast-feeding.
How can I get tested?
Most people are tested by private physicians, at local health department facilities, or in hospitals. In addition, many states offer anonymous HIV testing. It is important to seek testing at a place that also provides counseling about HIV and AIDS. Counselors can answer questions about high-risk behavior and suggest ways you can protect yourself and others in the future. They can also help you understand the meaning of the test results and refer you to local AIDS-related resources.
Though less readily available, there is also a viral load test that can reveal the presence of HIV in the blood within three to five days of initial exposure, as well as highly accurate saliva tests that are nearly equivalent to blood tests in determining HIV antibody status. In many clinics you can now get a test called OraQuick, which gives a preliminary result in 20 minutes. You can also purchase a kit that allows you to collect your own blood sample, send it to a lab for testing, and receive the results anonymously. Only the Home Access brand kit is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It can be found at most drugstores.
Keep in mind that while most blood tests are able to detect HIV infection within four weeks of initial exposure, it can sometimes take as long as three to six months for HIV antibodies to reach detectable levels. The CDC currently recommends testing six months after the last possible exposure to HIV.