Dr. Kimberly Smith, an infectious disease specialist at Chicago's Rush Medical Center, answers common questions about HIV and AIDS.
Q: What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
A: HIV means you've been infected and the virus is in your system. AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS means that you have a compromised immune system as a result of the HIV virus. The disease qualifies as AIDS based on your T-cell count. When a T-cell count goes below 200, that automatically means a person is pretty significantly immunodeficient. The other way that a person's disease can qualify as AIDS is if they have one of the AIDS-defining opportunistic diseases. There's a list of those, and they are primarily infections that one typically would not acquire unless they have a compromised immune system. The most common one that people might recognize is pneumocystis pneumonia. In the early days of the epidemic, the majority of people who died of AIDS died due to pneumocystis pneumonia.
Q: Who is at risk for HIV/AIDS today?
A: Everyone is at risk of HIV/AIDS, based upon their behaviors. It is important for people to understand that there is no particular group that is more at risk than another group, unless they engage in more risky behaviors. Anyone from a teenager to a grandma is at risk if they engage in the behaviors that put them at risk. The main behavior is unprotected sex, in the broadest definition: penile-vaginal sex, oral sex or anal sex. All of those things will put a person at risk. Kissing, hugging or other contact where you don't share bodily fluids (semen, vaginal secretions and blood) doesn't put a person at risk. Saliva, tears, and urine are not a risk unless they are contaminated with blood.
Q: What demographics have the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS?
A: The groups that have the highest prevalence are men who have sex with men and some racial groups, specifically African-Americans. This is true of men who have sex with men because the efficiency of transmission is greatest with anal sex, particularly if there is some trauma, or tearing, associated with it. Another reason, and this is true for both men who have sex with men and the African-American community, is that once you introduce an infection into a fairly closed community, and there are a lot of relationships within that community, it sort of self-perpetuates.