Effective Treatments for Preventing HIV
There was a time when an HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence. Thankfully, we have come a long way! While there is no cure for HIV, with consistent treatment and medication, HIV can become undetectable, and someone with the diagnosis can have a normal, healthy life. The problem is, one needs to be aware of the diagnosis to receive treatment, and it’s estimated that over 150,000 people in the US have HIV and don’t know it.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks immune cells that fight infection and disease. If left untreated, HIV can advance to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The immune system becomes badly damaged, and the risk of infections and other diseases is very high. Continued education about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and the risk factors included remains vital to the health of our population.
HIV is spread by sharing bodily fluids with someone with the virus through blood, semen, seminal or vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, or breast milk. The two major risk factors for transmitting HIV are having unprotected sex or sharing needles with someone who has HIV. The virus is not spread by toilet seats or by kissing, hugging, touching, or sharing food or drink with someone who has HIV.
In 2021, the South accounted for the highest incidence of HIV, with more than half (52%) of the 32,100 estimated new HIV infections nationwide. The breakdown of how new HIV infections were acquired by percentage is as follows:
- 70% by male-to-male sexual contact
- 22% by heterosexual sex
- 8% by IV drug use
By age group, the 13-34 age group accounted for 58% of new infections. This number has thankfully decreased by almost 20% since 2017, particularly among young gay men. HIV, however, continues to have a significant impact on specific populations, including racial and ethnic minorities and homosexual men.
PEP is one of two powerful prevention strategies which greatly decrease the risk of transmission of HIV. PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis. Prophylaxis means to prevent or control, and the goal of PEP is to start a round of this medication immediately after being exposed or potentially exposed to HIV. PEP MUST be started within 72 hours after exposure – the earlier, the better. The medication is taken daily for 28 days, with visits to your provider and follow-up HIV testing during the process.
PEP is utilized in emergency situations, such as for health care workers who may have had accidental exposure to an HIV patient’s bodily fluids, or someone who may have had sexual exposure to someone with HIV but was unaware of their status. It is critical to contact your health care provider or visit the emergency department immediately after exposure to get started on the medication. Taking it correctly and consistently is key to preventing the transmission of HIV.
PrEP is offered as another significant prevention method against contracting HIV. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. The goal of PrEP is to prevent HIV infection by routinely taking an antiretroviral medication daily. This type of HIV prevention is prescribed for people who live with someone with HIV and for those who engage in high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex or injecting drugs. PrEP is 99% effective against HIV if taken consistently and correctly.
An HIV diagnosis can have profound physical, emotional, and psychological effects on anyone; however, one population is especially vulnerable: victims of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a highly traumatic experience, but coupled with the fear of an HIV diagnosis, the impact can be even more distressing.
In response to this critical issue, the office of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and the Department of Crime Victim Compensation, along with McLeod Regional Medical Center, HopeHealth, and Pee Dee Coalition, held a press conference to bring about public awareness to the HIV nPEP (non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis) program. Non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis is administered following circumstances including sexual assault, unprotected sex, or sharing a drug needle with someone with HIV.
The press conference, held on November 8, 2023, highlighted South Carolina’s choice to expand its program to help sexual assault victims who may have been exposed to HIV. On the importance of the program, Fredrick Williams, infectious diseases practice administrator at HopeHealth, shared, “This project is very special to HopeHealth. Although HopeHealth has grown to provide primary and specialty care, we are very proud of the fact that we started as an HIV/AIDS suppoty organization, on the front lines, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It is with that same care and compassion that we do our part to serve victims of sexual assault and sexual violence.”
The treatment of AIDS and HIV has progressed significantly since the 1980s, and the goal is to end the HIV epidemic with medications and strategies to prevent transmission. Spread the word about the prevention of HIV! If you or a loved one lives with HIV, a healthy, full life and becoming undetectable are possible realities with proper treatment.
HopeHealth provides confidential HIV screenings, education, treatment, and quality care for all patients regardless of insured status or ability to pay. If you are at high risk, have questions about HIV or prevention strategies, or need HIV testing, contact our Infectious Diseases department at (843) 667-9414 or visit us online at hope-health.org.
Dr. Harmeet Gill is an infectious diseases physician at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence. He earned his medical degree from A.N. Magadh Medical College, Gaya, Bihar, India and completed his fellowship at Palmetto Health USC in Columbia, SC. Dr. Gill is board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases and has vast experience managing rural health initiatives. He ran the national polio eradication program and is the recipient of a state level award for efficiently managing a cholera outbreak in India. Fluent in English, Hindi, and Punjabi, Dr. Gill is a member of The Infectious Disease Society of America and the American Medical Association.