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red_ribbonThere are many health issues which plague the black community at large. It is a generally accepted fact in the medical community that whatever ailments afflict the general population, African Americans are much more likely than their White or Hispanic Counterparts to be affected in greater numbers. Where some diseases are concerned we are disproportionately represented. In the following weeks we’ll be examining the top 7 Chronic Diseases Affecting African-Americans.  We’ll address common symptoms and known treatments. We will attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions and present the most current known developments. Most importantly, we’ll share stories of everyday people living with health issues and how they manage their lives.

By far the deadliest and fastest growing plague on African-Americans is HIV/AIDS. This disease is most commonly spread through sexual contact with an infected partner, or by exchanging blood with an infected person through sharing dirty hypodermic needles, blood transfusion, or in the case of an infected mother passing the virus to her child in utero.

What it is

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is a “serious (often fatal) disease of the immune system transmitted through blood products especially by sexual contact or contaminated needles.” [1]

Who is at risk

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website,Anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation can be infected with HIV, but you’re at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you:

  • Have unprotected sex with multiple partners. You’re at risk whether you’re heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Unprotected sex means having sex without using a new latex or polyurethane condom every time.
  • Have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive.
  • Have another sexually transmitted disease, such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea or bacterial vaginosis.
  • Share needles during intravenous drug use.
  • Received a blood transfusion or blood products before 1985.
  • Have fewer copies of a gene called CCL3L1 that helps fight HIV infection.

Despite the universality of the disease, the fastest growing number of infected people are African-American women between the ages of 18-35. [1.5]

What its symptoms are

The symptoms of the disease depend on how far along it has progressed in a person’s system.

Early infection often shows no symptoms period. However some people notice a flu-like illness within a month of becoming infected. These symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Rash

As soon as HIV/AIDS enters the body, it grows in your lymph nodes and goes to work attacking the white blood cells, whose job it is to make your immune system function effectively. Symptoms or not, once infected you can pass the virus along to others through any of the means mentioned above. [2] This is why health care professionals and AIDS advocacy groups strongly encourage sexually active adults to only engage in sex if using a condom.

Some individuals can remain free of symptoms of the disease for years, up to eight or more.  But as the virus continues to grow and eat away at immune cells, it is common to develop mild infections or chronic symptoms such as:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Cough and shortness of breath

In the latter phase of the disease, the more serious symptoms can can take as long as a full decade after the initial infection to manifest. [3]

The CDC considers you to have full blown AIDS if you test positive for the disease and you have either one of the following:

  1. A CD4 lymphocyte count of 200 or less – a normal count ranges from 800 to 1,200 or
  2. The development of an opportunistic infection – an infection that occurs when your immune system is impaired – such as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). Symptoms for such an infection can include:
  • Soaking night sweats
  • Shaking chills or fever higher than 100 F (38 C) for several weeks
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Dry cough and shortness of breath
  • Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
  • Blurred and distorted vision
  • Weight loss

The first four symptoms directly above can also be the result of the advancement of the original infection in addition to or in place of the secondary, opportunistic infection. Other symptoms of the advancement of the original HIV infection include:

  • Persistent, unexplained fatigue
  • Swelling of lymph nodes for more than three months

If you’re infected with HIV, you’re also more likely to develop certain cancers, especially Kaposi’s sarcoma, cervical cancer and lymphoma, although improved treatments have reduced the risk of these illnesses.[4]

How it is treated

The best “treatment” for HIV/AIDS is prevention. The only effective, full proof means to prevent sexually transmitted HIV/AIDS is abstinence. Barring that, latex condoms provide some measure of protection, but are not full proof.

If you are sexually active, get tested regularly as symptoms may take years to manifest.

There is currently no known cure for HIV/AIDS. Again, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website:

“According to current guidelines, treatment should focus on achieving the maximum suppression of symptoms for as long as possible. This aggressive approach is known as highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART). The aim of HAART is to reduce the amount of virus in your blood to very low or even nondetectable levels, although this doesn’t mean the virus is gone. This is usually accomplished with a combination of three or more drugs.”[5]

FAQ’s about HIV/AIDS

Where did AIDS come from?

“The most recent presentation on the origin of HIV was presented at the 6th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunitistic Infections (Chicago, January 1999). At that conference, research was presented that suggested that HIV had “crossed over” into the human population from a particular species of chimpanzee, probably through blood contact that occurred during hunting and field dressing of the animals. The CDC states that the findings presented at this conference provide the strongest evidence to date that HIV-1 originated in non-human primates. The research findings were featured in the February 4,1999 issue of the journal, Nature.

We know that the virus has existed in the United States, Haiti and Africa since at least 1977-1978. In 1979, rare types of pneumonia, cancer and other illnesses were being reported by doctors in Los Angeles and New York. The common thread was that these conditions were not usually found in persons with healthy immune systems.”[6]

Who can get the disease?

Anyone can get the disease, but risk factors play a part (see above segment entitled Who Is At Risk)

Can I get HIV/AIDS from engaging in oral sex?

The simplest answer is that experts disagree.

Wasn’t Magic Johnson cured of AIDS?

Magic Johnson never had AIDS. He contracted HIV and is currently taking medication which suppresses his symptoms so effectively that the virus is rendered “undetectable” by today’s technological standards. If Magic were to go off his medication, the disease would no longer be suppressed and resume its natural course.[6.5]

Why are black women disproportionately affected by this disease?

It is true that black women are 23 times more likely to be infected by HIV/AIDS than their white counterparts. We account for nearly 2/3 of all new cases and are most likely to contract the disease through unprotected heterosexual sex. [7]

The following account was written in 2005 by Sandra Roger, a support group facilitator for the organization, Women At Risk in southern California. She writes candidly and accurately about a young woman whom I had the privilege of getting to know over the course of a year-long discipleship group. Please read as Sandra introduces you to

Lynn Chamberlain: Daughter, Friend, Fighter and Angel

‘Ten years ago, while working for the Los Angeles County Health Department, I was given the opportunity to form a support group for African American women living with HIV/AIDS. The very first woman to come to this group was Lynn Chamberlain. When I first met Lynn , I noticed not only how beautiful she was, but also how young she was. Lynn was twenty-five years old and diagnosed HIV positive when she was only twenty-one. As she sat in the brightly lit room for our first support group, Lynn told us her personal story.

Five years earlier, Lynn was a student at Tuskegee University in Alabama . Home in Inglewood , CA , for the summer, and working in a local restaurant, Lynn met a man she could only describe as “fine”. He was 6’4″ and 210 pounds with a dark complexion, trimmed beard and a smile that could light up even the darkest day. They introduced themselves, exchanged phone numbers and started dating. Nine months later back in school, Lynn started feeling sick. She called her mom who told her to come home. Upon her return, Lynn ‘s doctor told her she had HIV. Devastated, Lynn called her boyfriend to tell him he should be tested and when his results were also positive, Lynn was sick with guilt thinking she had infected him.

During another doctor visit it was brought to Lynn ‘s attention that her partner seemed to have been infected longer than she had. Puzzled, Lynn went to see her boyfriend and he confessed to her that he was bisexual and was first diagnosed as HIV+ two years before they met. In a state of shock she left his apartment and went back home, never to see him again. For the next three years Lynn waited to die.

It was then Lynn met Ann Copeland, another HIV positive woman and co-founder of a community based HIV organization called Women At Risk. She talked to Lynn , giving her the strength and hope she needed to get up and get on with the work of living with HIV and not dying from AIDS. Lynn started going to community forums, schools and churches, anywhere her voice could be heard, telling her story. “African American women account for seventy-two percent of all new HIV cases in America “, was a startling statistic Lynn was intimately aware of which motivated her to speak out at every opportunity. Lynn and her mother worked long and hard to educate and help people with HIV/AIDS. Her mother, Marilyn, opened a home for people living with HIV/AIDS called Marilyn’s House and in 1997, won an Essence Award for her work proudly dedicating it to her daughter Lynn. Sadly, her mother succumbed to ovarian cancer four years ago.

On December 20, 2004 Lynn Chamberlain lost her valiant fight against this disease. She passed from this world peacefully, surrounded by those who loved her. Lynn was an only child, however, Lynn did have sisters. The women in her support group and in the HIV community were her sisters. We knew and loved Lynn for ten beautiful years. We laughed with her, cried with her and were there with her as her journey in this life came to an end.

We are still grieving for Lynn and we miss her tremendously. She represented women who have HIV with style and class. Lynn was a wonderful friend to all of us. I never realized that by starting a support group ten years ago I would be blessed, not only in knowing Lynn Chamberlain, but also in meeting so many women who are fighting every day with dignity and courage to live and indeed to thrive in spite of this horrific disease.’[8]

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no cure.

New HIV/AIDS research centers around cultivating natural-based products to supress HIV for as long as possible, but no one has discovered a cure. Please take the time to educate yourself and make wise decisions about your body; your life and the lives of others depend on it. Although Lynn Chamberlain was able to use the platform that having HIV/AIDS afforded her to raise awareness and to advance the gospel, her story needn’t be yours.[9]

For more answers to your questions on HIV/AIDS call the Centers For Disease Control National AIDS Hotline on their toll free numbers:  1-800-342-2437 (English), 1-800-344-7432 (Spanish), or 1-800-243-7889 (TTY).

Other topics covered in this series will include Asthma, Coronary Heart Disease, Diabetes, Hypertension, Sickle Cell Anemia, and Stroke.

Be blessed Family!

Follow Sheeri On Twitter! Visit her on Black Planet.

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