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Human Immunodeficiency Virus

If you're the kind of person who gets depressed when you drive to the airport and see the
word "terminal," then you might prefer to skip this page. However, if you've been infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus, you've embarked on a voyage of no return.

Feelings about HIV are colored by primitive emotions and prejudices about homosexuality or drug addiction. People will avoid touching or even talking to you out of unreasonable fear of contagion. Medical science is little help, since "Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome" is typically regarded an incurable disease that will drag you relentlessly to an early death from kidney failure, cancers like Kaposi's Sarcoma, brain damage, or opportunistic infections that will overwhelm your flabby immune response.

Don't believe it.

Today, HIV can be easily controlled with a finely tuned suite of drugs that let you live a normal life span. You will still be rejected and stigmatized by society -- but that is nothing new for the tens of millions of gay men in the military and the civilian work force that had spend their live hiding in the closet, or for the needle-sharing crack-house drug addicts who make up most new AIDS victims, overwhelmingly black or Latino. Many of today's million-plus HIV-positive patients -- once heedless IV drug users or promiscuous patrons of San Fransiciso bathhouses -- are now sober custodians of the virus who are careful about risking others with an infection that has proven to be simply one more scar or bump in the journey into old age. Quite a few have settled into monogamous relationships with understanding partners.

And the disease is harder to catch then you might think. You are ten times likelier to get hepatitis from an accidental contaminated needle stick in a hospital, and only one out of 300 healthcare workers stuck with an infected needle will ever get infected. Scared of getting AIDS from that one-night stand last week? In a heterosexual relationship with a random partner, your chances of catching the disease might rank as low as one in five million, although the odds rise rapidly among high risk groups or professional sex workers. Even unprotected sex with an infected person carries only one in 500 chance of seroconversion -- although it can take three nail-biting months for your blood test to turn positive, a period when you could be unknowing transmitting the virus to others in a deadly game of blind-man's bluff.

You won't catch HIV by shaking someone's hand. But stay cautious about your sexual choices. Get tested. You might be one of the 50,000 new Americans who stumbled into an infection with HIV this year --- and turning positive is the trip of a lifetime. Get on the right treatment and that journey can still be be a long and happy one.

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