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Surviving the Epidemic : What is AIDS?

August 10, 1986

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is caused by a virus that cripples the body's natural defenses, leaving it vulnerable to diseases that healthy bodies can easily repel.

AIDS is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. But a large number of cases also can be traced to intravenous drug use, and it can be transmitted from mother to child--in the womb or through breast feeding. A small percentage of cases are blamed on transfusion of contaminated blood or blood products.

Sexually, the AIDS virus is spread through bodily fluids--semen, blood, urine. Although the AIDS virus has been detected in saliva and tears, there is no that evidence it spreads through either. The virus spreads among intravenous drug users through contaminated equipment they share.

The Centers for Disease Control have repeatedly said there is no evidence that AIDS is spread through the air, by mosquitoes or other insects, or through casual contact such as hugging or a handshake.

WHO IS AT RISK OF CONTRACTING AIDS?

In the United States, most AIDS patients have been homosexual or bisexual men (73%); intravenous drug users (17%); blood-transfusion recipients (2%); hemophiliacs (1%), and the sexual partners of each. Studies indicate that AIDS

can be spread through vaginal sex--from men to women, and from women to men. The percentage of heterosexual cases, though small, is rising steadily.

At no risk sexually are people who have been in a mutually monogamous relationship since 1977, unless either partner received a transfusion or used IV drugs. A major population at future risk are sexually active adolescents, especially if they use injectable drugs.

HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF FROM THE AIDS VIRUS?

If you use injectable drugs, do not share needles or equipment with other drug users.

If you are sexually active and have not been in a mutually monogamous relationship since 1977 (or if either you or your sexual partner has used injectable drugs since that year), you should consider practicing low-risk sexual behavior--especially if you are uncertain about either your current or past sexual partners.

According to guidelines issued by the Los Angeles City / County AIDS Task Force, high-risk sexual behavior includes: intercourse without a condom; oral sex with climax in the mouth; contact with urine, semen or blood in the mouth or on skin with cuts and sores; contact orally or by hand with the rectum, and the sharing of sexual devices.

Sexual behavior that may be risky, according to the task force, includes: deep kissing; intercourse with a condom (because they can tear); oral sex that ends before climax, and contact with urine on uncut skin.

Behavior with low or no known health risk includes: hugging, holding and cuddling; body-on-body contact; social kissing; masturbation, and massage.

WHAT IS THE AIDS ANTIBODY TEST?

It is a blood test introduced in 1985 to help ensure the purity of the nation's blood supply. The test (there are actually two varieties, one of which is used to confirm results of the other) detects antibodies to the AIDS virus, but not the virus itself. People who test positive on both tests are considered to be infected and capable of spreading the virus to their sexual partners.

A positive test result does not mean that a person has AIDS. That diagnosis is generally made only after a person's immune system has been ravaged and overwhelmed by another disease. Some people who show early symptoms of AIDS are diagnosed as having AIDS-related complex, or ARC.

Researchers are not sure how many people who test positive will eventually develop full-blown cases of AIDS, but estimates now put it at 20% to 30%. This may occur five or more years after infection.

HOW SAFE ARE BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS, AND IS IT SAFE TO GIVE BLOOD?

Very safe, according to the National Institutes of Health, which estimate that only 120 units of virus-infected blood now get into the national blood system each year--out of 12 million donations. Today, all donated blood is tested for AIDS antibodies. Despite those safeguards, members of groups at high risk of contracting AIDS should not donate blood. That includes any man who has had sex with another man since 1977, regardless of whether he considers himself homosexual or whether he has been in a long-term relationship.

You cannot contract AIDS merely by donating blood.

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