HIV/AIDS expert answers questions in Twitter chat

Follow #VCUHealthChat to keep up with conversations on a variety of health topics in the coming months

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In recognition of World AIDS Day, Virginia Commonwealth University HIV/AIDS Center clinical director Veronica Ayala-Sims, M.D., answered questions about the disease and provided up-to-date information on current research during a @VCUHealth Twitter chat on Dec. 1.

Veronica Ayala-Sims, M.D.
Veronica Ayala-Sims, M.D.

HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. AIDS is a syndrome caused by the HIV virus that develops when a person’s immune system is too weak to fight off many infections. It is the last stage of HIV, developing only when the infection is very advanced.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, almost 78 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 39 million people have died from the disease.  While no effective cure exists for HIV, the symptoms of the disease can be controlled with proper medical care and people who have been infected with the virus can live long and healthy lives.

VCU will host a variety of Twitter chats with medical experts in the coming months. Stay engaged with the conversation by following @VCUHealth on Twitter and searching for the hashtag #VCUHealthChat.

Below are Ayala-Sims replies to some of the questions raised on Twitter.

When was the HIV virus first discovered?

The HIV/AIDS pandemic was first identified beginning in 1981 after it was discovered that a cluster of patients in New York and California were suffering from a previously unknown condition that caused complete failure of their immune system.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS? How are they related?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

How is HIV/AIDS spread?

HIV is transmitted in very specific ways – through semen, vaginal secretions, blood and breast milk.  It is not transmitted through casual contact.

How can people help to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS?

The best treatment is prevention. The CDC has recommended for many years that everyone between the ages of 13 to 64 have at least one HIV test. This can help identify those persons who might have HIV prior to them becoming ill. It is estimated that the one in eight people who do not know their HIV status are responsible for about half of all new HIV cases. People who don’t know their HIV status are not aware of the need for modifying their behavior to prevent transmission. Another strategy that is gaining more widespread use is the use of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. This entails taking a medication on a daily basis to prevent an HIV negative person from becoming infected with HIV.

What are treatment options for people who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS?

HIV is completely preventable and treatable. It is now considered a chronic illness and people living with HIV are anticipated to have normal life expectancies. Treatment for HIV consists of daily medications that disrupts the normal life cycle of the HIV virus and stops it from replicating itself.

Where are we in terms of fighting the disease?

Despite the advances in treatment, the number of new cases of HIV each year has not changed much in the last decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 36.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. In the U.S., there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

How do HIV/AIDS stats in Virginia compare to the rest of the country?

According to the Virginia Department of Health, at the end of 2014, there were approximately 26,000 Virginians living with HIV/AIDS. Around 6,000 of those Virginians living with HIV/AIDS live in Central Virginia where Richmond and the surrounding counties are located. Richmond city and the cities of Petersburg/Colonial Heights/Hopewell have had some of the highest rates of new HIV cases in Virginia.

What are the obstacles to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS?

One of the challenges in curing HIV is that even when the virus is brought to undetectable levels in the blood by daily medications it can lay dormant in areas of the body known as HIV reservoirs. In order to eradicate the virus, researchers are still attempting to identify where all of the reservoirs are in order to be able determine how much virus is located there and how to destroy the virus that is still in the reservoir.

What is VCU Health doing to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and treat people who have it?

VCU Health HIV Clinical Services is the largest single provider of HIV medical care and supportive services in Virginia. We have five clinic locations in the Central Virginia area and our clinics are able to provide care to anyone who is living with HIV regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.


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