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HIV: Widely known but not widely understood

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In sex-education classes, teens learn HIV is a virus that, if untreated, develops into AIDS, and the best way to prevent contracting it is to practice safe sex or not have sex at all.

In most cases, I find that’s the extent of the information taught on the subject, leaving many in the dark to what HIV truly is.

{See related story: “How is health being taught in metro Atlanta?”}

To help teens understand the virus, I interviewed Dr. Carlos del Rio, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, about what HIV actually is.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is spread by bodily fluids (excluding saliva) through unprotected sex and sharing drug equipment, such as needles. The virus is incurable, and if not treated, can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

{See related story: Common Terminology: Helpful terms to understand HIV and AIDS}

HIV is classified as a lentivirus. What is a lentivirus, and why is HIV classified as one?

A lentivirus is a virus that can stay in the body for extensive periods of time. Lentiviruses, including HIV, do this by meshing their DNA or RNA with our own.

How is HIV transmitted from person to person?

HIV is transferred primarily through sexual contact, [or] contact with infected secretions. What people don’t realize is that you need to have contact with somebody who is HIV-infected and who is not on therapy [i.e. taking daily medications], because if somebody is on therapy [and has an undetectable viral load] then they are not transmitting. But if somebody is HIV-infected and is not on therapy, then they have detectable virus in their genital secretions. It can also be transmitted because you got exposed to blood.

Do we know why HIV attacks the immune system?

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HIV … targets the immune system cells, what we call the CD4 cells. It attaches and multiplies in those sites, and when it does that, it also kills them. It starts a process called programmed cell death, and it causes them to kill themselves.

How does HIV affect the body, and how does it weaken the immune system?

HIV damages the body by destroying the immune system.

Can HIV cause any observable physical changes?

HIV, itself, does not; the infection associated with HIV [does]. The vast majority of people with HIV, who are not sick, have the virus in their blood and don’t know it. You can’t tell if somebody has HIV just from looking at them.

Once someone is diagnosed as having AIDS, can they go back to just being HIV+ with the aid of medication, or is it permanent?

No one is just HIV-positive. Once you have the virus, it is multiplying. We can give you therapy and suppress the virus in your blood, and you won’t have the infection or disease, but you will still have HIV.

Is HIV a terminal illness?

HIV is not a death sentence [with proper treatment], but is a life sentence. You will be in therapy for the rest of your life. You will need to take drugs for the rest of your life.

Do we have any idea as to why HIV is currently incurable?

Well, it is incurable because it incorporates itself into the genetic material, and therefore it integrates into the cell. So the challenge to create a cure is, “How do we extract that?” We’ve never been able to do that.

How do medications suppress the virus?

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What the medications primarily do is interfere with the virus replication [when the virus copies itself to grow in numbers]. They control the virus, but they don’t cure it.

Do you have anything to say to teens who believe HIV doesn’t/won’t affect them?

HIV is real. HIV continues to infect millions of people around the world. There are still, in many communities, people getting infected every day and we should not take it lightly. HIV is a real disease and a real infection and it kills people.

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