HIV and AIDS: Battling Stigma

Asian Americans had the highest annual percentage increase of HIV/AIDS of all ethnic groups in the US between 2001 and 2004: 2.4% for men and 14.3% for women. In 2005, an estimated 4,276 Asian Americans were living with AIDS, but low testing rates within the Asian American community indicate a larger estimate. Its potential coinfection with tuberculosis and hepatitis B makes HIV/AIDS an even greater concern within in the Asian American community. Additionally, cultural barriers decrease the likelihood of diagnosis and treatment, increasing its deadliness.

Cultural barriers make the dangers of HIV/AIDS in the Asian American community higher as it drastically decreases the likelihood of diagnosis and treatment. Data from an HIV testing survey in Seattle indicated that of the Asian Americans surveyed, 90% were at risk for HIV infection, yet only 47% had been tested during the past year. Additionally, the cultural taboos around discussing sex among Asians make it more difficult to get partners to use condoms.

HIV weakens the immune system through the destruction of white blood cells, eventually making the body vulnerable to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). HIV is a retrovirus, or an RNA virus that fuses with white blood cells responsible for immune response. After fusion to the cell, it uses its reverse transcriptase enzyme to convert its RNA into DNA. The DNA gene is then incorporated into the host cell’s genes, enabling the virus to replicate.

Two to four weeks following exposure to the HIV virus, about 70% of infected people suffer flu-like symptoms. The immune system will fight back, dramatically reducing HIV levels. The person may remain free of any symptoms for years, despite the continuing replication of HIV in the body.

What makes HIV so pernicious is that despite the body’s initial immune response to contain the HIV virus, some HIV escapes without detection. This is largely due to the fact that the white blood cells that recognize the HIV virus experience high levels of mutation during the initial stages of infection making them unable to respond. More frightening, the HIV virus can hide within the chromosomes of an infected cell, shielding itself from detection by the immune system.

AIDS is diagnosed when a variety of symptoms and infections develop and when the white blood cell count falls below 200 (normally 500 to 1800). The patient must be more careful in maintaining a healthy lifestyle through exercise and diet as he or she is more prone to developing serious illnesses. In Western countries, the median time from HIV infection to the development of AIDS is approximately 10 to 12 years. Age, genetic differences and the differing strains of the virus are all factors in the rate and severity of the disease progression.

With antiretroviral therapy, it has been shown that people can successfully undergo the same treatment for at least a decade, and probably much longer. The usual reason for failure of therapy is not due to its ineffectiveness but patient negligence. If doses of HIV medication is skipped, it cannot be made up for. Dedication and energy is required for successful treatment therapy. If left untreated, 95% of people with HIV will die of AIDS.

Among adults, HIV is spread most commonly through sexual intercourse. Approximately 40% of the cases of HIV/AIIDS are from male-to-male contact, 30% from heterosexual contact and 25% from drug use. Among infected persons, 70% are men and 30% are women.


Most people infected with HIV will be asymptomatic. Within a month or two after exposure, they may experience a flu-like illness with the following symptoms: fever, headache, fatigue, enlarged lymph nodes (on the neck and groin). These symptoms will usually subside within a month and are oftentimes mistaken for other viruses.

After the asymptomatic period, which can last from as little as a few months to over 10 years, the following complications, signaling the development of AIDS occur: enlarged lymph nodes or swollen glands, fatigue, weight loss, fevers and sweats, frequent yeast infections, skin rashes or flaky skin, short-term memory loss. Some people develop severe herpes infections, causing sores on the mouth, genital or anal areas.


The virus can enter the body through the linings of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum and rarely, the mouth. In order to protect yourself from contact with HIV-infected fluids, these body parts must be protected. Use latex condoms or other forms of latex contraceptives. Latex is an incredibly resilient material that has been proven effective in preventing the transmission of HIV.

Get tested. Approximately 35% of pregnant HIV-infected women who have not received antiretroviral therapy pass the virus to their babies. HIV testing rates for Asian Americans are lower than any other ethnic group in the US, contributing to the spreading and deadliness of the disease.


Antiretroviral medicines are geared toward reducing the amount of virus in the body, preserving white blood cells and slowing the destruction of the immune system. There are currently thirty medications that have been approved by the U.S. government to fight HIV, with more in development. HIV medications are classified into several classes, each one attacking HIV differently with individual risks and benefits. To maximize the impact against HIV, a treatment regimen comprised of a “cocktail” of these different classes of drugs has proven most effective.

Doctors and patients often choose wait as long as possible to initiate therapy to ensure that the benefits of treatment will outweigh the side effects. They include: elevation of cholesterol, diabetes, lipodystrophy dyndrome, skinny arms and legs, protruding abdomen and fat deposits on the back of the neck.