The only thing to fear is fear itself. So please get tested. Of the approximately 1.2 million people in the United States who are HIV positive, 250,000 don’t know it.
There are two good reasons to know your HIV status. First, there are treatments available that let people live normal lives. The earlier they’re started in the course of the disease, the better they are at protecting people against complications. Second, people who are HIV positive and successfully suppress the virus with treatment are less likely to transmit the disease.
Q: Is HIV still something people have to worry about?
A: Although HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is not in the news as much as it once was, the risk is still real. In fact, about 60,000 people in the United States have been infected each year for the past 15 years as a result of sexual contact or sharing drug injection devices with someone who is HIV-positive.
That said, early on in the AIDS epidemic, almost everyone who became infected died within two to three years of becoming symptomatic, usually between eight and 12 years after contracting the disease. The advent of the HIV “cocktail” drug treatment in 1995 has allowed people to fight the virus and live a normal lifespan. It’s still a deadly disease, but something that people can manage like a chronic condition, such as diabetes or epilepsy.
Q: What makes HIV so dangerous?
A: HIV destroys lymphocytes, the defense cells in the body that help fight infectious diseases, which, in turn, slowly breaks down the body’s immune system causing premature aging, inflammation and serious infections.
Q: What type of care do patients receive in the outpatient setting at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals?
A: Early on, we realized that just doctors couldn’t just care for these patients. The Center for Comprehensive Care offers patients support for their medical and social needs. We now have the largest HIV care program in New York, with three outpatient sites and two inpatient units. Patients who visit our outpatient centers can receive primary and specialty medical care from:
- Physicians specializing in HIV care
- Social workers
- Psychologists and psychiatrists
- Dental hygienists and dentists
- OB/GYN, gastroenterologists, dermatologists, cardiologists, neurologists, and endocrinologists
Q.: What can I expect from an HIV test?
A.: It’s as simple as coming into a Continuum clinic or hospital and getting a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of your cheek. At our clinics, you’ll have your results 20 minutes later. You don’t need an appointment and you don’t have to wait long for the answer, which should help curb some of the anxiety.
Q.: I’m worried. What happens if I test positive?
A.: Starting treatment early on in the disease helps preserve immune function. Plus, if you know the facts, you can prevent spreading the disease, and you and your doctor can address any special medical needs you may have. If you are HIV positive, get in a program where there are specialists who deal with it every day. You want your care supervised by someone who is very experienced.
Q.: How often do I need to get retested?
A.: It really depends on your risk profile. If you use condoms or abstain from sex and don’t use intravenous drugs, your risk for exposure is low. If you’re engaging in more risky behavior, you should get retested often. Think of it as a way to protect your own health and that of others.