The Red Ribbon & Beyond: HIV/AIDS Awareness for Today
The content or any linked materials in this blog are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider.
For the last 30 years, the Red Ribbon has served as a symbol of awareness and solidarity for people living with HIV/AIDS, thanks to the courage and compassion of artists belonging to the Visual AIDS Artists' Caucus during the U.S. epidemic.
Many people will recognize the Red Ribbon as representing the fight against HIV and AIDS. In comparison, the significant medical advancements in treatment and prevention of the virus are less well-known . Through my experiences interning and working as a full-time behavioral health clinician for an AIDS Service Organization, I quickly realized (and continue to recognize) that a lot of people are unaware of the difference between HIV and AIDS, the efficacy of current treatment, and the existence of preventative medications.
HIV & AIDS
While frequently written as HIV/AIDS, HIV and AIDS are not one in the same. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that enters the human body and comprises the effectiveness of the immune system, allowing a person to be more vulnerable to contracting and fending off other viral (such as the Flu or Common Cold) or bacterial (such as Strep or Salmonella) illnesses. HIV can ONLY be transmitted when there is an exchange of certain body fluids: Blood, Semen, or Breastmilk. I want to emphasize exchange of fluids; outside of the body, HIV cannot survive for very long in open air and cannot contaminate or live on surfaces. Contrary to pervasive stigma and fear stemming from the 1980’s and 1990’s, HIV cannot be transmitted between people who speak, kiss, hug or embrace in other physical touch without the exchange of bodily fluids, with at least one of those fluids carrying the virus.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the syndrome resulting from the untreated, late stage infection of HIV. For simplicity in differentiation:
HIV is the virus.
AIDS is a consequential condition of the virus.
A person will be diagnosed with AIDS when the number of CD4 cells (i.e., important white blood cells part of the body’s immune system) falls below 200.
Today, most people living with HIV in the United States do not develop AIDS as antiretroviral treatments have become more accessible and effective in reducing viral load, or the amount of HIV in the blood (HIV.org, 2020). Launched in 2016, and still gaining recognition, is the U=U initiative.
U=U stands for Undetectable Equals Untransmittable
People who take their HIV medication as prescribed can achieve an undetectable status, meaning the virus can no longer be detected in the body. An undetectable HIV status further means that the virus cannot be transmitted to other people. For more information and updates on U=U movement, check out this article from POZ magazine or this post from the Harvard Health Blog.
For people living with HIV, taking medications to maintain an undetectable status is considered “Treatment as prevention” (or TasP). There are other methods of HIV prevention for people not living with HIV, including PrEP and PEP.
PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis
When taken as prescribed, PrEP is 99% effective in reducing the risk of HIV transmission. Currently, there are two medications that can be prescribed for PrEP as a one pill per day regimen: Truvada and Descovy. While there may be some initial side effects, research shows these will dissipate over time.
PEP stands for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis
Whereas PrEP needs to be taken daily to prevent transmission of HIV, PEP is meant to be taken within 72 hours of possible exposure. PEP can be used in occupational settings for healthcare workers who may have come into contact with blood containing detectable levels of HIV. nPEP (or non-occupational PEP) can be prescribed to anyone, usually in an ER or Urgent Care setting, who has possibly been exposed to HIV through a sexual experience or shared injection equipment. To learn more, click here for PrEP or click here for PEP.
Your Body, Your Care
Whether it be mental health or medical, I am a firm believer in illuminating various options for healthcare while respecting my clients’ autonomy in determining what’s best for their mind and body. The following are two of my go-to Colorado-based resources for accessing support related to HIV treatment and prevention:
Colorado Health Network (historically known as the Colorado AIDS Project)
Non-profit with locations throughout the state offering medical, financial, and
emotional support to people living with and/or affected by HIV/AIDS. Main website: https://coloradohealthnetwork.org
An STI testing site located in downtown Denver that can also help you get connected to PrEP. Main website: https://www.heydenver.org