In the Spotlight

HIV: Did You Know...?

Contributed by Maggie Czarnogorski

Did You Know?

man thinking

Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is no longer a death sentence. It is a manageable chronic disease. If you are diagnosed early and you take your medication as instructed by your health care provider, you can live until you are 80 years old or older.

The first cases of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS were reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 5, 1981, about 30 years ago. Some of the first cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed by VA doctors. Since then, VA has been a leader in HIV care. Medicine has made significant progress in treatment of Veterans infected with the virus.

HIV - What is it?

HIV is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system. Your immune system is what keeps you healthy and free from infection.

HIV infects a specific type of immune cell, called a CD4 T cell. HIV infection causes CD4 cells to weaken and die. Your "CD4 count" is a measure of how many CD4 cells you have and the progression of the disease.

Over time, HIV infection weakens the immune system so much that patients become sick with diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, or certain cancers. Once the immune system has become very weak and CD4 counts are very low, the patient is diagnosed with AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

HIV is spread by:

  • sexual contact
  • breast milk
  • needle sharing
  • blood transfusion
  • other incidents that cause contact with the body fluid of an HIV infected person
woman thinking

For many years, there may not be any symptoms of HIV infection. Most people with the HIV virus do not feel sick for almost 10 years or longer. However, HIV gradually weakens the immune system and if left untreated, eventually can progress into AIDS. Early testing and diagnosis can prevent weakening of the immune system.

Since there may not be any symptoms of HIV infection, it is important to be tested even if you do not feel sick. One out of every five HIV positive people in the United States does not know they are infected. Knowing your HIV status allows you to be treated earlier for the disease if you are HIV positive. HIV treatments extend lifespan and promote health. Treatment also reduces the chance of passing the disease on to your partner.

So Get Tested for HIV today!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs recommends routine testing for HIV. Everyone should be tested at least once for HIV, even if you do not think you are at risk.

Testing is easy

Using just a blood sample or a fluid/saliva sample from your mouth, providers can test for antibodies against HIV - particles your body produces to fight an HIV infection. Results are usually available in 3 days to 2 weeks, however some VA clinics have access to a rapid HIV tests that can give you results in as little as 30 minutes.

Treatment at the VA

get checked logo

HIV is no longer a death sentence but a treatable, chronic disease that can be managed in the same way as diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure). Today, HIV treatment can be as simple as one pill once a day. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. But with treatment, patients live much longer and healthier lives, in some cases, well into retirement.

The VA treats more patients with HIV than any other health care provider in the US. The VA has world-class doctors and staff with experience treating HIV positive patients. Being tested or treated for HIV does not affect your VA benefits and ensures that you get the best care possible. HIV positive Veterans are treated at every VA medical center.

Ask your VA provider today about being tested for HIV!

Learn more

  • VA National HIV/AIDS Website (VA) offers a wide range of information about HIV/AIDS such as: basic information, frequently asked questions, tools, tips, community support and more.
  • Caring for Someone with AIDS at Home (HHS, CDC) people with AIDS-related illnesses often get better faster with the help of their friends and loved ones. Learn what you can do to help.

Updated/Reviewed: December 1, 2011