Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a lentivirus – a slowly replicating retrovirus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a progressive failure of the immune system which allows life-threatening opportunistic infections to thrive.
Infection with HIV occurs through the transfer of body fluids like blood, semen, and vaginal fluid. Within these bodily fluids, HIV is present in both free particles and virus-infected immune cells.
HIV infects vital cells in the immune system such as helper T cells (specifically CD4+ T cells), macrophages, and dendritic cells. Infection leads to low levels of CD4+ T cells. When CD4+ T cell numbers decline below a critical level, cell-mediated immunity is lost, and the body becomes progressively more susceptible to opportunistic infections that can cause death.
In April 2013, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released HIV testing recommendations that everyone aged 15 to 65 should be screened for the virus.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HIV testing once a year for everyone as a regular part of their healthcare routine, but especially for people considered high risk: individuals who participate in unprotected sexual acts with multiple partners and use intravenous drugs.
Regular testing allows people to know their status, get life-saving treatment and care, and prevent HIV transmission to others.
When was the last time you were tested?
Many people don’t know they have HIV as it is initially asymptomatic. More than one million people are living with HIV in the US, but one in five people on average don’t know they are infected.
According to the CDC, this year – June 27, 2013 – marks the 19th annual National HIV Testing Day, a day to promote awareness and offer testing and counseling services.
Testing for HIV is easy as there are several options available. People can have their regular doctor perform the exam. There are also testing facilities available through National HIV and STD Testing Resources – the site will direct you a local testing center.
If you wish to test privately, there are two FDA-approved kits available for purchase online or in drugstores – a rapid testing kit that provides results in 20 minutes, and a finger stick blood sample collection kit that requires sending it to a licensed laboratory, then calling in later for results.
Testing is anonymous with both kits, and the manufacturer provides confidential counseling and referral to care.
Remember that if you have unprotected sex or share needles after your test, you need to get retested to make sure you are still HIV-negative. Your HIV-negative test result expires every time you engage in risky HIV acquiring behavior.
[Image via Shutterstock - the result of a positive rapid HIV test]