The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, destroys specific blood cells in the body called CD 4 + T-cells (helper cells). These cells are critical to the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases. In the later stages, HIV can lead to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, which is a condition in which the immune system is severely damaged, and may no longer be able to defend against exposure to other infections and diseases.
HIV can be passed from one person to another through four bodily fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery. There is no current vaccine to protect against HIV infection, no known cure and no current method to rid the body of the virus. Education and safe behavior including the use of barriers, such as condoms and gloves, personal protective equipment in medical settings and universal precautions are the best protection. Infection with HIV is 100% preventable.
The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. The virus is asymptomatic (no symptoms) for many years but will show up in a test at least six months after direct exposure to infected fluids. Many symptoms, when they do appear, are similar to other illnesses, and not conclusive without the test.
If there is any possibility of infection, it is important to be tested as soon as possible. A number of testing sites are available in Delaware County and surrounding counties. Most testing is free or on a sliding fee scale. Many sites offer anonymous testing. For a complete list of anonymous state-designated HIV counseling and testing sites, go to: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/hiv___aids/14241/hiv_anonymous_counseling_and_testing_sites/557955
Tests are also available at various community sites. The brochure of the AIDS Consortium of Delaware County provides a list of agencies, which are certified to do testing. Please contact them for times and locations.
For work related, needle stick or other accidental exposure, post exposure treatment is available. Treatment will be in the form of medication, usually a combination therapy of three designated drugs, to prevent the onset of infection. There are guidelines for post exposure treatment, and most emergency rooms and departments will know and follow them. It is important that the attending medical personnel understand the nature of the exposure and consult with the Centers for Disease Control in evaluating the severity of exposure, appropriateness of treatment and the prescription of medication. The CDC hotline is available to physicians 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. This should not be considered “morning after” treatment, and cannot be used following a pattern of high-risk behavior.
Anyone testing positive for HIV should seek medical treatment promptly. The person providing you with the results of your test will be able to counsel and guide you. There are a variety of medications available to slow down the progression of the virus when used in combination with good nutrition, healthy lifestyle and regular medical care to monitor one’s overall health. In most cases, some kind of medication will need to be taken for the rest of the patient’s life. The good news is that HIV positive people who continue treatment are living much longer, healthier lives than in the past.
The Ryan White Care Act defines several HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support services to be funded by the federal government. Most are available in Delaware County, or in the four surrounding PA counties, including Philadelphia. Most services are free and confidential. For a complete list of all HIV-specific services available in Delaware County, please refer to the brochure of the AIDS Consortium of Delaware County. (LINK). Links are provided below to those member agencies with web sites:
You will find much more information about HIV/AIDS on the following websites, including: clinical trials, consumer groups, funding, history, medical implications, national HIV/AIDS strategy, planning, prevention, resources, services, specific populations, statistics, testing, transmission, terminology, treatments, and more.
Centers for Disease Control
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health
Office of HIV Planning for the region