There are two types of discussions about HIV that take place in the gen-pop of Black communities. One, how Magic Johnson holds the cure or about the type of person who contracts this virus. Two is the rhetoric that this is a disease one contracts when dealing with a gay man or when gay. Neither dialogues are helpful in educating communities on HIV.
You'll hear many experts and advocates say that HIV is no longer a death sentence and while this is true, I imagine that none of us are flying a Goodyear blimp in the blue skies that says "come for me." No one asks for HIV. No one. Which makes it all the more important that we stay educated on the topic in a way that is sex positive.
Because despite the 14 million people who had to die due to the government's ignorance and bias throughout the 80s and well into the 90s, there always seems to be a new headline about an influx of HIV diagnosis in one black-ish community or another and part of me feels that has a lot to do with the way we've continuously stigmatized it. This can be easy to do when there isn't proper sex education within many communities. We're having too many of the wrong discussions and not enough of the right ones.
But I've never been one to sit around demanding change while refusing to be part of the solution, so let's chat! Let's debunk what you believe to be true about HIV and get the 411 on preventative measures, plus what a diagnosis means.
Human immunodeficiency virus is what those three often bolded letters stand for in the acronym HIV. According to Dr. Cedrina Calder, it hurts the immune system "by attacking specific cells. The virus affects the body's natural ability to fight infection."
She warns, "If the virus is left untreated, the illness can progress to a condition called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS."
HIV can be detected by your gynecologist or urologist using one of the three methods: Nucleic Acid Test, Antigen test, or an Antibody test. Rapid and home tests are normally antibody tests that can be conducted with an oral swab or a blood sample. For those with a healthy suspicion of home test, like myself, Dr. Calder says they are 92 percent sensitive. In other words, it will be effective for about 92 percent of those who use it. The nucleic acid test is a more thorough test that doctors may opt for if you test positive.
The origin of HIV has been a mystery for the most part. While the CDC suggests that it may have been present in Africa since the late 1800s, it didn't knowingly make its way to the United States until the late 1970s. When it first ravaged communities, it was thought to only be a disease that affected the gay community -- the name given to it during that time was Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID).
It took thousands of people dying annually and a decade of activism from groups such as ACT UP for the Government to intervene and pass policy for FDA approved medications for the infection.
As it stands there is no cure for HIV, there are only treatments. These treatments have become increasingly more effective, increased life expectancy, and decreased the likelihood of HIV progressing to AIDS. As previously mentioned, these treatments make it possible to live a healthy life with an equally healthy sex life after being infected through consistency and maintaining a low detectability rate, making it more difficult to transmit the virus.
Exposure to HIV
It can't be stressed enough how important it is to be tested regularly for HIV. Your annual visit can suffice unless you engage in "risky" sexual behaviors, and then it is recommended that you get tested more frequently.
Risky sexual behavior doesn't necessarily mean engaging in sex with multiple partners but can simply mean you engage in anal sex regularly. According to Dr. Calder, those who participate in anal sex or are the proclaimed "bottom" are at greater risk due to how easy it is for the infection to pass through rectal tissue. This has to do with the lack of lubrication provided in the area, as well as the fact that the tissue there has a lot of blood vessels.
It's worth noting that HIV cannot be detected immediately after exposure and while it often takes anywhere from least three to 12 weeks, there are some cases where the antibodies take longer to detect.
That said, should you be exposed to HIV unknowingly (this might occur in the case of sexual assault), you have a 72-hour window to get to your doctor for PEP or Post-exposure Prophylaxis. If this occurs over a weekend or any given day where you cannot be seen by your physician, it is critical that you get to the ER to begin treatment.
Living with HIV is more than possible with technological advances, but it does require a shift in your lifestyle. In fact, Dr. Calder reminds us that although there is no guarantee that HIV won't develop into AIDs, with early and proper treatment along with a healthy lifestyle you can "significantly decrease the chance of the infection progressing into AIDs." She further elaborated that this healthy lifestyle might look like limiting alcohol and drug intake, fitness, and a generally clean diet.
If you are HIV-negative but currently engage or plan on engaging in sex with an HIV-positive partner, then Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (or PrEP) is a pill regimented daily that helps to prevent the transmission of HIV. For those engaging in vaginal sex, the pill takes up to three weeks to work.
PrEP solely protects against HIV and it's not recommended that couples stop using condoms or other forms of birth control in lieu of taking PrEP. Furthermore, we know that there is no form of contraception that's 100 percent effective outside a laboratory but it can be 90 percent effective at reducing the risk of transmission through sex.
According to PrEP, the pill is also viable option for women who wish to become pregnant with their partner who is positive.
The Ryan White Care Act AIDS Drug Assistance Program has been around since 1990 and helps low-income people afford medications. And now, with the inclusion of Obama Care and the Affordable Care Act, these medications are more accessible than ever. At this juncture, Medicaid and most insurances cover the cost of the PrEP pill, but if you don't have access to those programs, there are organizations you can reach out to for financial assistance.
However, as Dr. Calder points out, it's these type of socioeconomic disparities that have continuously made HIV an epidemic amongst those who identify at the intersection of black, gay, and male.
It must be said that by perpetuating stereotypes, the groups impacted by any disease only become pushed further into the margins, making it more difficult to take preventative measures. Thus, why it's so important for us to have these discussions and create a safe space for people to address genuine concerns, correct misinformation, and further expound upon the dialogue.
Featured image by Getty Images.
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