December is infectious disease month: About HIV/AIDS by Dr. Todd Wallenius

By Janet Oppenheimer | Dec 19, 2012
Dr. Wallenius is the Medical Director of WNC Community Health Services where he has been employed since 1998 and is a member of the Western Carolina Medical Society.  He is a graduate of the UNC School of Medicine and MAHEC Family Practice Residency Program, holds Board Certifications in Family Medicine and Addictions, and is credentialed as an American Academy of HIV Medicine HIV Specialist.

HIV disease, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus not unlike many common viruses that cause the flu.  Symptoms of HIV infection include symptoms typical for any viral illness.  Symptoms usually occur within 1 to 4 weeks of infection and may include fever, chills, sweats, headache, fatigue, rash, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, achy muscles.  These symptoms can last from a few days to 4 weeks, and then resolve.  Unfortunately HIV does not “go away” after a period of sickness.  Rather, the virus stays with you and outsmarts your defense system, making copies of itself along the way to overcome your immune system.  Fortunately there are medications that fight HIV.  In fact, HIV disease has become manageable, similar to other chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.  On November 20th, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) drafted a strong recommendation that all people aged 15 to 65 years undergo screening for HIV infection. The statement also recommends HIV screening for all pregnant women, including those who present at the time of labor, and for younger adolescents and older adults who are at increased risk.

Once diagnosed, HIV, just like other chronic diseases, HIV needs to be treated regularly and treated effectively.  Keeping people with HIV in care is a very important part of keeping them healthy and living as normal a life as possible.  Medications, while very expensive, are much more effective and require fewer doses than in the past, which helps patients stick with the course of treatment..

Unfortunately, untreated or ineffectively treated HIV disease can lead to a more complicated and serious condition known as AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.  This happens when the virus overruns the immune system and destroys so many good cells that the body can no longer fight the infection.  When this happens, more advanced medications are required and regular medical care is imperative.  People who die from HIV disease usually die from a complication of AIDS.  Again, the good news is that more effective medications and treatment are improving the lives of people with HIV/AIDS.  This can only happen when HIV is diagnosed, medications are prescribed and taken regularly and regular medical exams occur to monitor the progression of the disease and the impact of the medications.

Unfortunately, unlike diabetes or high blood pressure, people with HIV disease face barriers such as stigma.  Making someone feel ashamed of their disease does not lead to less HIV in our community – it leads to sicker people, higher costs, and more HIV disease. HIV/AIDS is a disease that, when diagnosed and treated promptly, can be managed much more effectively than in the past.  Most people with HIV disease live normal lives, just like people with diabetes or high blood pressure.

Western North Carolina Community Health Services (WNCCHS) provides HIV care to over 650 individuals living with HIV disease in western North Carolina. Western NC AIDS Project (WNCAP) and Asheville Infectious Disease Consultants (AIDC) are part of our Network of care. Case managers, physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, and lab technicians work as teams to provide high quality HIV care for our community.  It is possible that you have friends, neighbors, relatives or co-workers living with HIV/AIDS.  Show your care and support so that they can live healthy, normal productive lives.


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