With an estimated 37.7 million people worldwide affected by HIV, World AIDS Day serves as a global-health endeavor to end the surrounding stigma and increase awareness.

Observed each year on Dec. 1 since 1988, World AIDS Day encourages people to show support for those living with HIV, raise awareness for the disease, unite in the fight against it and remember those who have died from a related illness.

J. Richelle Joe

Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States live with HIV, and Central Florida is one of the most affected regions nationwide. Particularly, Orlando has ranked among the top five cities in America with new HIV diagnoses in recent years.

The prevalence of HIV and AIDS-related illnesses is part of the reason J. Richelle Joe, associate professor of counselor education in the College of Community Innovation and Education, is passionate about spreading awareness and advocating for those affected by it. She also leads the HIV Education, Awareness, and Research Team (HEART), a collaboration of faculty and students at UCF dedicated to addressing the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic locally and nationally through awareness education and research.

“I have family members who have been affected with HIV and lost family members to AIDS-related illnesses,” Joe says. “When I’ve worked as a counselor, I’ve seen the impact that it can have on individuals. I remember working as a school counselor, and one of our sixth-grade students lost her older brother to AIDS-related illnesses. I saw how that affected their family, and it affected her ability to engage in school. I’ve also worked with young people who have contracted the virus. I think both those personal and professional experiences have made me passionate about this.”

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
HIV is a virus that is transmitted through intimate contact. To contract HIV, someone would need to come into direct contact with blood, semen, breast milk, vaginal fluids, pre-seminal fluids and rectal fluids.

The way that HIV works specifically is it attacks the immune system in our body, specifically the CD4 cells, which are helper cells that keep the immune system working hard. If HIV is not treated, our immune system is weakened, and we can become susceptible to any illness. The flu could be deadly for someone who’s living with HIV. If someone has the virus and it’s not treated, their CD4 cell count can drop below 200 cells per milliliter of blood, and they would receive an AIDS diagnosis. HIV is the virus and AIDS is a syndrome — a group of symptoms or conditions — which means it’s an indication that someone’s immune system is significantly compromised.

What are some of the most common misconceptions surrounding HIV/ AIDS?
I think one misconception is that it’s not an issue and it’s not something we need to be concerned about anymore. It still is — especially in the southern part of the United States, for communities of color, and particularly for gender and sexual minorities. Another is related to the transmission and the ways that HIV can and cannot be transmitted. There are misconceptions regarding a person’s morality — the perception that people living with HIV are not clean or are in some way sexually promiscuous. This is just not true. There are a number of factors that make people vulnerable to HIV, and there’s conversation in the medical community about social determinants of health. HIV can affect anybody.

How can you prevent HIV?
HIV is a sexually transmitted infection, and we know that condoms, dental dams, and any kind of barriers are really helpful for preventing sexually transmitted infections. Another important and helpful method to prevent HIV is through medication, such as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a once-a-day medication that an individual can take that will help prevent them from contracting HIV. Research has shown that it’s highly effective in preventing HIV for people who are consistently using this medication as it is prescribed.

Who should get tested for HIV and when?
It’s recommended that anyone who’s sexually active gets tested for HIV. There is guidance from the CDC about frequency for populations where HIV is most prevalent. They do recommend every three months for people who are in higher-risk groups, but anyone who is engaging in sexual activity — especially if they’re not using any preventive measure — should be getting tested at least once a year.

There’s a blood test which is a simple finger prick, and you can get the results in under 20 minutes. Sometimes it’s a really short turnaround time, depending on what the test is. There’s an oral test where the gums are swiped, and the results from that can be received in 20-30 minutes. There also are at-home tests that use a gum swipe, called the OraQuick test.

How can someone tell if they have HIV? Are there symptoms?
With HIV, someone can be living with the virus and not know it for quite some time. Initially, there are reports of some cold-like symptoms that someone might have right after an initial exposure. Those might even go unnoticed by an individual, so it’s important to get tested and know their status because there aren’t many signs.

How is HIV/AIDS treated?
When the HIV virus enters the body, it seeks out and takes over those cells before reproducing itself. The medications that are on the market help to stop the HIV virus from reproducing itself and restore the immune system to its previous condition. The medications help the CD4 cell count to go up and the HIV viral count to go down. If people don’t get treatment, then it can be the opposite, which means that their body can’t protect them from any kind of illness. The goal of the treatment is for the person to get to the point to where their HIV viral load is undetectable. What’s wonderful is that when it’s undetectable, people are not going to transmit HIV to other people through sexual contact, even if there’s no other prevention method used.

Where can you get HIV tested? What resources are available for those who do test positive?
The great thing is that testing for HIV is free, and it’s easily available in many locations. UCF offers free testing through Wellness and Health Promotions Services on a regular basis. Off campus, there’s testing through the Department of Health, and there’s testing offered through a lot of organizations, like Planned Parenthood, Hope & Help, and Miracle of Love. Many of them have mobile units. There’s a website called Talk, Test, Treat Central Florida, which has information about where people can get testing, where people can get PrEPinformation and where they can get HIV treatment here in Central Florida.

What would you say to someone who was recently diagnosed with HIV? What advice would you give to someone who just learned a person close to them has HIV or AIDS?
To anyone who has recently been diagnosed with HIV, don’t panic. HIV is a chronic illness that can be managed with medication. I would encourage that person to get in care as soon as possible as well as the psychosocial support that will help you live a long, full, healthy life.

To anyone who has learned that someone close to them is living with HIV, ask that person how you can support them. Be present and be compassionate. That’s what they will need from you right now.