Get Tested! Thirty Years Since First Confirmed HIV/AIDS Cases

A little Buju while you read…

Nope, it’s not the end of the year.  Don’t go running for the calendar: it’s June 3 not Dec 1.  When was the last time you were tested for HIV? Actually, when was your last sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD and STI) test? When was the last time you and your partner spoke about these kinds of check ups? If you’re sexually active and those questions make you uncomfortable because you have to think hard about the answers, then either tomorrow or first thing Monday morning you have an appointment to make.  The check is quick and easy.  A friend of mine was tested recently: it took 20 minutes + maybe 5 minutes to answer some preliminary questions.

You know, I’m not going to assume a thing.  Brace yourself for a a bit of Biology…painless, I promise (just like a test for HIV!).  HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus.  It’s a retrovirus, which means it contains RNA (ribonucleic acid) one of the body’s main building blocks.  For HIV, RNA is its genetic material.  Using an enzyme already contained in and used by our bodies, HIV converts its RNA to DNA….that DNA is then ready to replicate within the body.  Within the retrovirus family, HIV is within the “slow acting” class, which is why so many can have HIV and not know since the virus by its very chemical makeup takes a long time to show itself, i.e. show symptoms.  The treatment for HIV is antiretroviral drugs, which can suppress the levels of the virus in the body but cannot cure HIV.  HIV can lead to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).   HIV compromises the body’s immune system by attacking our T-cells (important for fighting off infections).  As the body’s T-cells are attacked, one who is infected with HIV “is less equipped to fight off infection and disease, ultimately resulting in the development of AIDS.”  Usually an AIDS diagnosis is made when an infected person develops “one or more opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis, and has a dangerously low number of CD4+ T cells.”  In the beginning it was not uncommon for AIDS patients to die from cancer.  Read more here and here and here.

There, done.  That’s how HIV and AIDS work.  Hopefully that explains why it’s important to get tested: the virus’ very nature is to act slowly and therefore be hidden, so unless you progress rapidly from HIV to AIDS (e.g. if you already have a compromised immune system) you will not know that you are infected and therefore can infect others.  You cannot tell that a person has HIV by looking at them.

With new figures for 2010 for those living with HIV; graphic shows worldwide breakdown of those estimated to be living with HIV (Source: WHO)

Even in apparently monogamous relationships one needs to be careful.  Use a condom until you’re comfortable enough, and even then think carefully about not using a condom.  And LADIES – yes you all especially – INSIST on using a condom and ask questions about sexual history, including his last check up.  Of course, make sure you’re able to provide information on your last check up.  I single out us ladies because it is easier for women to contract HIV.  Why? Because there is more mucous membrane exposed for a woman during unprotected sex, and it’s easier for there to be small nicks and cuts on that membrane.  A man could have a similarly small cut on his penis and that’s all it takes.  It only takes one time.  Bareback might feel nice but having HIV is no picnic. These days it is common to say that HIV is not a death sentence, and yes, treatment has come a long way, people live longer, and quality of life is much improved….but HIV is still an incurable disease.   O and you can be infected from oral sex too…anal sex too, as well as through intravenous drug use and blood transfusions (though this is not as big a problem any more because hospitals routinely screen for HIV).

When the first cases were reported, they were identified within the male homosexual community, which led to the public thinking that HIV/AIDS were gay illnesses.  Not so, but unfortunately that perception still persists.  If you still think that then shake that idea out of your head; banish it.  O and if you think that having sex with a virgin can cure your STD or STI then PLEASE banish that idea too: IT’S NOT TRUE! For treatment of any STD or STI you need professional medical treatment.

It’s been 30 years since the first HIV cases were identified in the U.S.  Since then the medical and pharmacological communities have done much to address diagnosis, treatment, and education about HIV and AIDS.   Advocacy groups and national governments have also done a fabulous job of educating their populations about HIV.  Yet there are 34 million people in this world who live with HIV/AIDS, and 2 million die each year.  More than 90% of that 2 million live in developing countries.  Approximately 1.5 million HIV-infected persons live in North America, and 200,000 live in the Caribbean.  In the U.S. highest rate of infection is within the black community, and the number of infections among black women is alarming.  Almost half of the infections in the U.S. are within the black community.  It is also alarming that the number of infections reported each year in the U.S. is flat.  Information is available, protection is available and yet the number of infections is not going down.  Get tested.  U.S.-specific information is here.  According to USAID, approximately 1.6% of Jamaican adults (in Jamaica) are infected with HIV, which represents stabilization of the infection rate.  The full report can be read here.

As many of us know all too well the highest proportion of HIV-infected persons live in Sub-Saharan Afric: 22.5 million people.  The highest HIV/AIDS infection rate belongs to this region as well.  A few years ago I attended a presentation about the U.S. government’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – PEPFAR – a great global initiative that I must give President George W. Bush much respect for) and it was said that the second highest infection rate was in the Caribbean.  Yeah I was shocked.  And it is true.  According to UNAIDS:

Although the Caribbean accounts for a relatively small share of the global epidemic, its HIV prevalence among adults is about 1.0% which is higher than in all other regions outside sub-Saharan Africa.

Still shocking because the actual number of infections is comparatively small.  As for mode of transmission:

Unprotected sex between men and women—especially paid sex—is believed to be the main mode of HIV transmission in this region; however, emerging evidence indicates that substantial transmission is also occurring among men who have sex with men

So it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight.  Read more here and a regional fact sheet is here…do note the mentions about Jamaica as well as look at the UNAIDS-specific page for and about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

I encourage you to talk to your children, girlfriends, bredrins, dupes, sistren, brother, sister…you get the idea.  The links to sites throughout this post have lots of useful information, both for your own knowledge and to share with others.  Talk ’bout dat!

June 7, 2011 Update- Testing Locations

  • Free HIV tests June 24 – 27, 2011 at Scotiabank branches across the Caribbean.  You can see the full list of branch locations by clicking here.  The Jamaica testing branch locations are Sam Sharpe Square Westgate, Ironshore, Barnett St. (MoBay); Hagley Park, Premiere (Kgn); St. Ann’s Bay (Ochi); Highgate (St. Mary); Santa Cruz (St. Bess); and Frankfield (Clarendon)
  • US: check out Planned Parenthood for not only a testing center but also a lot of information on STDs.  The CDC also has a National HIV and STD Testing Resource where you can search for a testing center using your zip code.


3 Responses to “Get Tested! Thirty Years Since First Confirmed HIV/AIDS Cases”
  1. Emma Lewis says:

    An excellent post, Ms. CJ, well researched. I’m glad I inspired you to write it! Yes, PEPFAR is a great program and I am personally involved in administering a part of it in Jamaica. It has been making a difference. I am glad President Obama renewed it five years after President Bush started it. By the way, another thing to consider… many Jamaicans living with HIV are not aware of their status and are, of course, busily sleeping around. Another concern: the HIV/AIDS rate is MUCH higher (around 30 per cent) among gays. Then what about bisexuals? When you sleep with a man, are you sure he is heterosexual (let alone how many other partners he has had and probably still has)? These are all things that we must consider, for our own health and wellbeing. And your “monogamous” relationship (as noted in your earlier blog) may not be as monogamous as you think…

    • Wow, kudos to you for working with PEPFAR! The program is an excellent one and has done a lot to raise awareness and address treatment and access to treatment issues. Good luck with it all!

      Thanks for your points and question on the demographic breakdown of HIV/AIDS infections in Jamaica…getting tested and knowing your status is so very empowering. One’s health and well being is really REALLY important. Now while I don’t advocate mandatory HIV/AIDS and other STD testing, the benefits of knowing and acting responsibly with that knowledge cannot be ignored (i.e. being HIV negative and still sleeping around without protection or being HIV positive and not informing your partners, taking medication, having safe sex). As for the higher incidence among the gay population: Jamaica needs to deal with its homophobia and tolerance so that this can be addressed…we need to be reaching as many at risk populations as possible.

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  1. […] 34 million people on this planet with HIV/AIDS, 2 million die each year.  There is no cure.  I blogged about it a few of months ago along with the basics – what is HIV/AIDS […]

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