While the world is focused on coronavirus, we should not forget to continue to manage the other health conditions that plague our community—like HIV.
Like coronavirus, HIV impacts a larger percentage of Black and Latino people than white people. In Houston, rates of young people of color living with HIV is rising, and, overall, there is a greater number of new infections in our communities.
There are geographical disparities as well. An excess amount of infections occur in the southern United States with some cities having rates of new HIV infections that rival developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. That is the disturbing news.
The good news is that HIV is fully preventable. The good news is that for people who do get infected it can be managed with medication. The good news is that HIV no longer is a death sentence. This good news is driving down stigma for people living with HIV as we learn from them about what it means to overcome.
What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that causes a disease that damages people’s immune systems. This immune system damage puts people at risk of getting other infections. People living with HIV, especially uncontrolled HIV, have more inflammation in their bodies. This inflammation speeds up the aging process and these people experience heart disease and kidney disease earlier than people without HIV.
How do I know if I have it?
HIV testing is readily available, including at the clinics I run in Houston. Tests are done by a routine lab draw, a finger stick, or swab of the mouth. The swab and the fingerstick can provide answers within 20 minutes. Knowing if you have HIV no longer has to be a mystery. Depending on the type of test one gets, a person can get a reliable diagnosis within a few weeks of exposure.
What do I do if I find out I have HIV?
If you find out you have HIV, see a health care provider. Find a caring doctor who will treat you with dignity and respect, provide you the best medication, and walk with you through the process. Resources are available here. Many treatments are as simple as one tablet a day often with few, if any, side effects. Even if you don’t have health insurance, excellent care is available. Avenue 360 Health and Wellness offers a sliding scale so that people can get care regardless of their income.
How can I protect myself from getting HIV?
The way people become infected with HIV is by having sexual intercourse with someone with HIV, during childbirth, breastfeeding or blood-to-blood contact. Prevention is always the best cure, so wear a condom. And people who are at an ongoing risk of getting HIV can take a pill once a day to help dramatically decrease their chances of getting the virus. This concept is pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.
There are also medications that can be given to protect people from getting infected with HIV even after they have had a significant exposure.
What do I do if I find out a loved one has HIV? Making sure people who have HIV are in treatment, helps them live long healthy lives. It also helps them be at less risk of infecting someone else. Knowing someone is in care and on treatment can be very reassuring.
In this season when it feels like there is so little we can control, know that HIV is a virus we actually can control. We know what it is, how it is transmitted, how to stop it and how to treat it.
Dr. Charlene Flash is an infectious disease physician and CEO and President of Houston-based Avenue 360 Health and Wellness.
Dr. Charlene Flash developed one of the first comprehensive HIV prevention programs (pre-exposure prophylaxis in the United States. She has served in senior clinical or administrative positions at Harris Health System (Ben Taub Hospital) and Legacy Community Health. She has been part of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s #AsktheHIVdoc series and has taught at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston since 2012. A graduate of Yale University and Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, her work on HIV has appeared in the New York Times and on COVID-19 in the Houston Chronicle and Houston Public Media.