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Medical Advances

New Options for HIV Prevention and Treatment

Advances in Medicine Make Living a Healthy Life with HIV Possible

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that weakens your immune system and makes you vulnerable to illness. Left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). While it is estimated that more than 1.1 million Americans have HIV, around 15 percent of those people do not know they are infected.

When HIV was first discovered in the early 1980s, it carried a devastating stigma that kept patients from seeking information, care and support. Fear and shame led to further spread of the virus and more lives lost. More than 30 years later, there is still no cure for HIV, but we have a much greater understanding of the virus and how it’s transmitted. And now, advances in medicine are helping people reduce their risk of developing HIV and helping those who are infected live healthy, active lives.

Preventing HIV

HIV can be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal secretions, rectal fluids and breast milk. It cannot be spread through casual contact, such as sharing towels or bedding, saliva, sweat or toilet seats. Condoms have been the traditional and most effective choice to reduce the risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV through sexual contact. Now, medication is available that can also reduce your risk of HIV infection. One option, taken before exposure, is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The medication doesn’t protect against other sexually transmitted infections (STI) or pregnancy, but it has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection through sex by more than 90 percent for gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and heterosexual men and women. For people who inject drugs, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection by more than 70 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you believe you may have already been exposed to HIV, another medication option, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), can be pursued. It must be started within 72 hours of a possible exposure, such as through sex, sexual assault or the sharing of needles. If you’ve had a very recent exposure, talk to your healthcare provider or emergency room physician immediately to see if PEP is an option for you.

Early Detection Is Key

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, it is important to get tested immediately. Early detection offers more choices for treatment, lowers your risk for complications and helps you manage your symptoms. It is encouraged that all adults between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once, and those at high risk for HIV infection should get tested more frequently. First, find a healthcare provider that you trust and immediately let him or her know about your HIV exposure. Your healthcare provider can order testing to confirm your HIV diagnosis, and then will be your advocate as your care team develops a treatment plan.

The cornerstone of HIV treatment is antiretroviral therapy (ART), which can prevent the virus from damaging your immune system further. In some cases, it can even reverse damage that has been done. ART can reduce your chances of transmitting HIV to sexual partners. There are a number of antiretroviral drugs used in ART, and the treatment is recommended for all people living with HIV regardless of how long they’ve had the virus.

Getting the Right Support

Receiving an HIV diagnosis will change your life and the lives of those you love. Proper guidance and support from trusted professionals will help ensure that your unique physical, emotional and spiritual needs are being met. Northwestern Medicine HIV Center and Specialty Clinics provide this kind of support and can provide information about clinical research studies, infusion therapy services, inpatient consultation and care coordination.

Research shows that communication between partners is associated with a reduction in transmission and increased testing, so it is important to talk openly about the disease — with your loved ones and your care team. Know that you are not alone, and with today’s medical advances and the right support, you can live a thriving life with an HIV diagnosis.