Though treatable, HIV still an issue that affects everyone

HANCOCK – Although there have been stories in the media recently about HIV being functionally cured, health officials want people to know it is still prevalent, but it is a disease that is treatable and is not in itself a reason to give up trying to fight the infection.

Although there is currently no confirmed cure for HIV, researchers “functionally cured” a 30-hour-old baby girl with the virus with experimental drugs. After two years, there is no sign of HIV in the girl.

Dr. Teresa Frankovich, Western Upper Peninsula Health Department medical director, said although HIV is still a health issue, it’s relatively rare in the U.P. with no more than one new case reported each year in the health department coverage area of Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties.

In the United States, Frankovich said there are many people with the illness.

“It’s 1.1 million people walking around with HIV, and one in five of them don’t know they’re infected,” she said.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., HIV originated in Africa when humans came in contact with the blood of chimpanzees infected with another disease called simian immunodeficiency virus, which mutated to HIV. That mutation may have started as early as the late 19th century.

Frankovich said in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, HIV first showed up in San Francisco, but medical professionals didn’t know what it was. Because it was a new disease and treatments were unknown, it usually turned in Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which at the time was always fatal.

“It took awhile to identify what virus was causing (AIDS),” she said.

Frankovich said there are three phases of HIV:

The acute phase presents with flu-like symptoms and lasts two to four weeks.

“That’s when you’re highly contagious,” she said.

The latent, or quiet phase, during which there are few symptoms, is next.

Finally, if left untreated or treatment starts too late, HIV becomes AIDS. After three years, AIDS is fatal.

Once a person develops HIV, Frankovich said that person has it for the rest of his or her life.

In years past, Frankovich said many people diagnosed with HIV became despondent and thought because AIDS is fatal, there was no reason to get treatment for the virus.

However, Frankovich said there are very effective HIV treatments being used now, and those with the virus can expect a normal lifespan.

“Life expectancy for HIV is much longer,” she said. “This has become a chronic disease in many respects.”

One of the more famous people with HIV is former professional basketball player Magic Johnson, who found out he had the virus in 1992.

Susan Hayrynen, RN and health department public health nurse, said although most private doctors will do testing for HIV, the health department will do it either anonymously or confidentially, which means no one outside the health department will know about it, unless results are positive, in which case the Michigan Department of Community Health in Lansing must be notified.

“We offer free HIV testing at the health department with an appointment,” she said.

Hayrynen said testing can be done either with a blood draw or with a swabbing of the inside of the patient’s mouth. The blood or swab are then sent to MDCH.

“We get the results within a week,” she said.

If results of the tests are positive, Hayrynen said treatment should begin immediately.

“The earlier you start the treatment, the better,” she said.

In this area, Hayrynen said people who test positive with HIV are sent to the Continuum of Care in Marquette for treatment.

There are home testing kits available, also, Hayrynen said. Where to get them locally can be found by calling the CDC at 800-232-4636. Those kits use either a blood draw (finger prick) or an oral swab.

Hayrynen said besides doing the testing for HIV, the health department will provide education on the illness, and give information on risk reduction.

Although HIV can be spread by the sharing of contaminated needles, shaving razors, toothbrushes or anything with contaminated blood on it, according to the CDC, the most common form of transmittal in the United States is unprotected sex, and Frankovich said a fast-growing segment of American society developing HIV is youths aged 13 to 29 years.

According to a 2009 survey, Frankovich said 46 percent of high school students claimed to be sexually active. Of that number, one third said they didn’t use protection in the previous three months.

There is a standard treatment protocol for those with HIV, Frankovich said.

“Basically, that’s guided by their physician,” she said.

Frankovich said she thinks HIV may be losing some of its social stigma, which will help to increase the number of people getting tested and treated.

“It’s probably becoming more normalized,” she said. “It’s another medical condition that needs to be addressed.”