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A sneaky virus: Testing and evaluating the risks

BRATTLEBORO—Remember the first time the acronym AIDS flashed across the TV, or in a newspaper headline?

Remember the feelings that rose as the headline passed by? Are they the same feelings 30 years later?

The HIV prevention specialists with the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont say they spend a lot of their time dispelling misconceptions about HIV.

For example, some people still think they can contract HIV through saliva, sweat, urine, or mosquitos, said Sue Conley, the HIV preventional specialist for the Women’s Program.

Why? In part, because the virus isn’t on the national radar as it used to be, she said.

But mostly, the misconceptions exist because of fear, she said. Most of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of contracting HIV are sex and drug use, behaviors our society doesn’t want to talk about.

For the HIV prevention to get through, “You’ve got to hear it more then once,” said Conley. “That’s just human nature.”

Biologically, when HIV first enters the body, the virus replicates quickly. Meanwhile, the immune system goes into overdrive attacking the virus. Over the course of about three months, the immune system develops HIV antibodies and eventually manages to suppress the virus to some degree, said Alex Potter, HIV prevention specialist for the Men’s Program.

People are most infectious right after they’ve contracted HIV and usually at the point before they know they’re infected, said Potter.

The virus will wait patiently until the body’s immune system relaxes its assault. Then it will emerge at a time when the immune system will no longer recognizes it as the threat it is.

“HIV is a very sneaky virus,” Potter said.

The bodily fluids carrying the virus — from most to least — are blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate fluid, and breast milk.

The holes most susceptible to funnelling the virus into a person’s system are veins, the anus (because the tissue both tears easily and absorbs fluids), the vagina (because the tissue is absorbent), the mouth (because of the potential for small cuts), and the tip of the penis.

People using intravenous drugs who share needles are at high risk for HIV because they’re creating a blood-to-vein pathway. Men who have anal sex with men are at high risk because they’re creating a semen-to-anus pathway. Women who have sex with men who are either IV-drug users, or who have had sex with men, are at high risk because they created a semen-to-vagina pathway.

According to Potter, traditionally the lesbian community has had a lower incidence of HIV. Most lesbians aren’t exposed to the same level of exposure to bodily fluids during sex as heterosexual women or gay men are.

Still, Potter said, HIV risk depends on behavior. Sharing needles puts anyone at risk, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

Conley echos Potter, adding that if you have sex when either drunk or high, you’re less likely to exercise good judgment like asking your partner to put on a condom.

Testing available

The AIDS Project of Southern Vermont on Grove Street in Brattleboro offers free and anonymous HIV testing.

The mouth swab test, which determines the presence of HIV antibodies, takes 20 minutes. While waiting for the results, an HIV Prevention Specialist provides counseling on behavior, answers questions, and helps the participant develop a safer-sex plan.

Not everyone needs to be tested for HIV, Conley said.

The key is to evaluate behavior. Have you had multiple sexual partners? Have you had sex with men who have had sex with men? Have you used drugs? Did you forget to use a condom and aren’t sure of your partner’s sexual or drug history?

Conley is aware that when she counsels people on their behavior and talks about these issues, not everyone divulges all the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives or drug use.

And that’s okay to keep events private, she said: the important thing is to be honest with oneself about whether one’s behavior is putting others at risk.

If the behavior is risky, then people also have to be honest and proactive about developing a safer sex plan, Conley advised.

The AIDS Project’s prevention counseling is non-judgmental, she said, but that advice doesn’t mean much if people won’t follow it.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #138 (Wednesday, February 8, 2012).

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