HIV: Get Tested. Get Treated.

In the United States, there are 1.2 million people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 13 percent of those people are unaware of their diagnosis. Washington, D.C. has been hit particularly hard by HIV. Approximately 2.7 percent of the District’s population is living with the disease.

“Unfortunately, many people do not know that they are infected with HIV, and don’t present for medical care until the infection has severely damaged their immune system,” says Glenn Wortmann, MD, section director of Infectious Diseases at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “In order to help people get diagnosed earlier, the CDC now recommends that all people aged 15-65 get an HIV test at least once in their life, and those with risk factors for HIV get tested more frequently.”

The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. Your primary care physician or other healthcare provider can test for the disease with a simple oral swab or finger prick blood test. Many medical clinics, hospitals, and community health centers also offer testing.

Most insurance covers the cost of HIV/AIDS testing and treatment. If you do not have insurance, some facilities have resources to help patients pay for the cost of treatment. MedStar Washington Hospital Center is the recipient of Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program funding, the largest federal program designed specifically for people with HIV/AIDS. Through this grant, the outpatient clinic provides medical care, case management, social work and peer navigator services to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.

Evolving Treatment and Care

HIV is most commonly spread through sexual contact, contaminated needles, or from mothers to their children during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. The virus attacks the body’s immune system and makes it difficult to fight infections and certain cancers. If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

There is no cure for HIV, but early testing and revolutionary treatment options can dramatically improve the quality and length of life for those living with the virus.

“Over the past 30 years, advances in treatment have seen HIV evolve from a uniformly fatal condition to an infection which can be managed with medications.  However, the control of infection requires taking a pill every day, and regular adherence is critical,” says Dr. Wortmann.

The treatment is typically a combination of drugs called antiretroviral therapy (ART). The use of ART to treat HIV has drastically reduced the number of infections and deaths from the disease.

Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, HIV could progress to AIDS in a matter of years. Now, with early diagnosis and treatment, people with HIV can live nearly as long as those without it. Taken regularly, ART can help control the disease, keep immune system healthy and even decrease the risk of infecting others. The World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately 17 million people currently using these life-saving medications.

“By getting tested and linked into care, patients can start life-saving medications, and can expect to live a normal lifespan,” Dr. Wortmann concludes.