In AIDS, hepatitis C, early diagnosis is vital

It's important to prevent transmission to others

March 11, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The fight against HIV and AIDS hinges on two equally important factors: preventing transmission and getting treatment.

But the first step is knowing whether you're infected at all.

"There are significant consequences of not knowing the truth," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore health commissioner. "The real concern is if someone was thinking they were negative and actually were positive, they may not be as careful as they should be" when engaging in sexual activity.

The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, can be transmitted during unprotected sex with an infected person or by sharing drug needles with someone who is infected.

A pregnant woman also can pass the virus to a child in the womb. Without treatment, Beilenson said, that happens in about one in four cases; with treatment, only about 2 percent of babies become infected.

"You almost can completely prevent passing it on to the baby if the mom is put on the appropriate antiviral [medicines]," he said.

"And it's crucial."

Dr. Albert Wu, an internist who works in the AIDS clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that a delayed diagnosis would make a difference - in terms of treatment - only for patients in the advanced stages of infection.

People infected with HIV take, on average, 12 to 13 years to develop symptoms of full-blown AIDS. Though physicians once placed patients on anti-viral drugs early in their infection in hopes of staving off the disease, Wu said, the standard practice today is to save the drugs until patients are quite sick.

Beilenson said that the sexual partners of those infected with HIV are notified by the health department that they are at risk and are urged to get screened.

"People need to know if they're positive," Beilenson said. "That's why there's such an emphasis on getting people tested."

Hepatitis C, a liver disease caused by a virus of the same name, can be transmitted through the blood or body fluids of an infected person; most infections are the result of illegal injected drug use.

In Baltimore, Beilenson said, about 90 percent of injected-drug users test positive for the virus - which can lead to chronic liver damage and, in some cases, death.

Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

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