How Much Do You Know About HIV?

BlogHer Original Post

A week ago, Magic Johnson commemorated the 20-year mark since his HIV diagnosis. On November 07, 1991, he stepped up to a podium in Inglewood, California, surrounded by photographers and journalists and announced that he would be retiring from the National Basketball Association after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

"I want to make clear, first of all, that I do not have the AIDS disease," he said. "I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have so you'll see me around... and going on with my life. I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus because I want people to realize they can practice safe sex. Sometimes you're naive about it and you think it could never happen to you, that it only happens to other people and on and on. But it does happen. It can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson."

As promised, Johnson devoted himself to HIV awareness and educating the public. His main concern was battling the assumption in those times that HIV only affected the gay community and drug addicts. His goal was to fight these assumptions, lobby for safe sex and battle the discrimination faced by those who tested positive. To that end, he founded the Magic Johnson Foundation that same year.

It's been 20 years since Johnson made that announcement, and while we are aware of the risk of HIV regardless of orientation, and most of us do test for it, what do we really know about the virus?

HIV can be divided into two major categories: HIV-1 and HIV-2. Both of these has a variety of groups and subtypes below it. Group M, stemming from HIV-1, is known to cause 90 percent of HIV infections around the world.

The virus affects the immune system; specifically, the helper T cells. When the number of these cells decreases significantly, the body's immunity suffers, making a person susceptible to all kinds of disease and ailments, which can be deadly to a body that doesn't have the mechanisms to combat them.

HIV infection has three stages: acute infection, latency, and AIDS. Acute infection refers to exposure, which can last for several weeks. Symptoms can be confused with a cold or mono -- they may involve fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, muscle pain, rash, malaise, and mouth sores. Others have reported headache, nausea, weight loss, and an enlarged liver. An individual is the most contagious during this stage of the virus.

The latency stage, which lasts anywhere from a few weeks to decades, is reportedly "silent" in comparison, meaning it rarely exhibits symptoms, though some have noted enlarged lymph nodes during this time. People are still contagious during this stage.

The final stage, AIDS, is characterized by low T cells, weight loss, and the inability of the body to defend itself against infection and disease. The most common opportunistic ailments that can plague someone with AIDS are respiratory tract infections. Pneumonia can be fatal.

HIV transmission occurs when the secretions of an infected person come in contact with the genital, oral or anal membranes of another person; as a result, most transmissions of HIV happen sexually through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. According to a 2009 study, the risk transmission in high-income countries from a man to a woman is 0.08 percent, and 0.04 percent from a woman to a man. The risk is much higher for the recipient during anal sex: 1.7 percent.

Condoms are known to decrease risk by 85 percent, though some research suggests that spermicides may cause vaginal or rectal irritation, which makes HIV easier to spread. Using water-based lubricants helps prevent irritation from condom use and doesn't weaken latex, as oil-based lubricants are known to do.

As for that condom so often featured in movies -- you know the one, the old, beaten up condom that's been living for centuries in someone's wallet -- stay away. Condoms should be kept in a cool place. Never keep a condom in a pocket or wallet for more than a few hours. Heat is known to make latex brittle, which is bad news when you eventually get around to using a condom.

If you're having sex, the best bet is not to depend on the other person for condoms -- you never know how they're being stored. Make a habit of picking up some for yourself now and again and storing them in a cool, dry place, only throwing them into your bag when you're ready to go out.

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer.com

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