Written by BLC intern Julie Lee
For this blog post, I thought I’d survey my friends on what they know about HIV/AIDS. To give some insight into their perspectives, their ages range from 18-22 and all are currently attending or planning on attending college. I asked four questions:
- How many people do you think there are living with HIV in the U.S.?
Responses ranged from 500,000 to 1.5 million. The CDC estimates that around 1.2 million people are living with HIV, so the responses were pretty accurate. I was personally a little surprised at this – if I had been asked this question before starting my internship, I don’t think I would have had any idea.
- What do you think the life expectancy of someone living with HIV in the U.S. is?
Responses for this question varied widely. One responder estimated the life expectancy of someone living with HIV to be 3-4 years after contracting HIV. Another estimated 35 years. This suggests that they might have been confusing HIV with AIDS; this surprised me. I thought that my friends would definitely know the difference between HIV and AIDS – maybe not the CDC-defined CD4 cell count threshold, but that AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. Other responses included age 60, age 75, and almost the same as that of the general population with treatment, which is actually the correct answer. With ART, the average lifespan of someone living with HIV is around their early 70s, compared to 78 for the general population. Additionally, “life expectancy was lower for individuals with a history of injection drug use, non-whites, and in patients with baseline CD4 counts <350 cells/mm3.”
- Are there certain populations more at risk of HIV infection?
Two respondents suggested racial/ethnic differences, answering that Blacks/African-Americans were more likely to be infected with HIV. According to the CDC, Blacks/African-Americans experience the “most severe burden of HIV” – they are incredibly disproportionately affected. Two responders suggested that the LGBT population is more at risk, which is also true. The CDC states that “gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) of all races and ethnicities remain the population most profoundly affected by HIV.” Transgender people are also likely to be disproportionately affected, although there are a number of barriers to accurate data collection on transgender people. Another respondent suggested that drug users were more at risk. According to the CDC, injection drug users represented 14% of those living with HIV in 2011. Responses accurately reflected information published by the CDC.
- How do you contract HIV? What are the ways in which you can prevent contracting HIV?
All respondents suggested using condoms as a way to prevent HIV infection. Other responses included using clean needles and avoiding contact with bodily fluids (“blood, semen, breastmilk, etc.”) of someone who is HIV positive. It was unsurprising to me that they knew that day-to-day contact, such as shaking hands or kissing, is not a method of transmission. It was also unsurprising to me that none of them mentioned PrEP as a way of prevention. Coming into this internship, I was not aware that PrEP existed, and I expected my friends to also be unaware.
I would say that the responses above are pretty similar to what I knew about HIV/AIDS before I started my internship at the BLC. I remember feeling like I had learned a lot at the end of my first day here, after I had finished reading up on CDC factsheets and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States. While reading, I had to look up many terms used in the factsheets: engagement in care, retention in care, viral suppression. I knew that medications to help with HIV existed, but I didn’t know that it was called ART and I certainly didn’t know how it worked. I didn’t know that such large disparities existed among different populations with respect to HIV infection risk. I also didn’t know that there were commonly co-occurring diseases, such as HCV, that makes treatment that much more difficult.
Since that first day, I’ve gotten the opportunity to do more research on topics like women’s health and HIV, HIV criminalization, and cardiovascular disease with relation to HIV. However, I think that my most valuable takeaway has been – not the facts I’ve come to know or the research I’ve done – but learning how to communicate effectively. Every conversation I’ve had here, no matter how short, has been a lesson in supporting others and has made me feel supported and appreciated. Through my time at the BLC, I have come to fully believe in the power of community and support.