Title: Drugs & AIDS: Blood Relations
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: September 2007
Catalog Number: 170

..Deadly Mix

In the years
since it was first identified, AIDS has spread more than its
share of panic and pain.

And despite
the best efforts of many of the best minds in the world, AIDS
is still hurtling out of control — faster, almost, than our
ability to comprehend it, much less control it or cure it. And
AIDS is out of control worldwide, despite recent advances in
treating its symptoms.

A main problem
in coming to grips with AIDS — and the human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV) that causes it — has been the difficulty in pinpointing
who, exactly, has been exposed, and how.

That’s even
more difficult since the virus is spread by two activities that
most of us would rather keep to ourselves: sexual behavior and
drug use.

And while sex
is less often a source of embarrassment than it used to be, drug
use — particularly intravenous (IV) drug use, which can transmit
HIV infection — is still against the law. And most users just
aren’t that interested in standing up and being counted.

But they are
being noticed — and counted increasingly — as carriers of AIDS.
Just consider these recent numbers:

  • By January 2007, more than 310,000
    U.S. AIDS cases — about a third of all infections — involved
    IV drug users.
  • Hundreds of thousands more current
    users may already be infected, and passing the infection along
    to others.
  • Users of crack and crystal meth
    (who often combine drug use with high-risk sex) are being infected
    by the tens of thousands, helping fuel the spread of the disease
    into the general population.

That’s why
we’ve put together this pamphlet. Because even though it’s against
the law to use drugs, people who use them shouldn’t have to pay
with their lives.

..What exactly is AIDS?

AIDS is a group
of diseases and other problems that result from impairment of
the immune system following HIV infection.

AIDS, which
is the final stage of the infection, can show up in a lot of
different ways. That’s because HIV attacks immune-system cells
which normally rid the body of bacterial and viral invaders.

When that happens,
people with AIDS get sick, often from rare, hard-to-treat diseases.
Common symptoms include cancer, blindness, paralysis, memory
loss, and a wasting syndrome that can result in death.

And even though
a number of treatments have been developed for people with AIDS
over the past few years, it’s important to note that they’re
only treatments, not a cure.

And there is
still no vaccine to prevent its spread.


..How do drug users get AIDS?

By exposure
to the blood of an infected person. Since IV drug users often
share needles and syringes (“works” or “a set”)
they can also end up sharing the AIDS virus, if one of them is

If you’re an
IV drug user, you might think that all you have to do is avoid
sharing your needle with someone who’s sick.

That would
be great advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Because AIDS
can have a long latency period — up to 10 years, for some people.
That means they’re infected, but they’re not sick-at least not
in an obvious way.

That’s why
the best way to reduce your risk if you shoot drugs is to avoid
sharing needles. Period.

..Does everyone exposed to HIV get AIDS?

Not necessarily.
Whether or not a person exposed to HIV eventually develops AIDS
depends on how he or she is exposed.

That’s because
certain routes of transmission are more dangerous than others.

Since the virus
must enter the bloodstream before it can cause infection, ordinary
heterosexual activities don’t automatically result in infection.

Other practices,
such as anal intercourse, raise the risk of transmission for
the simple reason that they increase the likelihood of contact
with infected blood or semen through broken skin or abrasions.

And since sharing
a dirty syringe involves direct exposure to blood, it’s almost
guaranteed to cause infection, if you’re sharing it with an infected

..Do all IV drug users get infected?

Anyone who
shares IV needles puts himself or herself at risk. And according
to several studies, that includes nearly everyone who shoots
up, at one time or another:

  • More than 95 percent of IV drug
    users have shared needles at least once, according to the National
    Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • A study of female IV drug users
    found that 42 percent had shared needles with family or friends,
    and more than one in five reported sharing their works with complete
    strangers at least once.
  • And users who frequent “shooting
    galleries,” where works and needles are shared, are even
    more vulnerable to AIDS.

Still, some
groups are harder hit than others.

Due to higher
rates of drug use and needle sharing, Blacks and Hispanics account
for three-fourths of all cases linked to IV drugs.

And according
to one study, IV cocaine users are more likely than heroin users
to become infected since they inject more often.

estimate that 35 percent of IV cocaine users carry the AIDS virus,
versus 19 percent of heroin users.

..Do other drugs increase risk?

Yes and no.
Researchers are still trying to fit all the pieces in the HIV
puzzle into place, but the best evidence thus far does not support
a direct link between non-needle-related drug use and the disease.

One exception
may be the nitrite inhalants, including amyl and cyclohexyl nitrite,
which is sometimes sold in headshops and adult book stores as
“head cleaner.”

Sniffed for
their brief surge of dizzying effects, the chemicals impair the
ability of white blood cells to fight disease, and may change
into cancer-causing compounds in the body. In fact, one study
of an AIDS-related cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) showed that
a majority of sufferers used amyl or butyl nitrite.

Since IV drug
use is such a high-risk activity, needle exchange and methadone
maintenance programs are proving their value in the fight against
AIDS. Methadone which blocks craving for heroin can even cut
needle use by up to 90 percent among users who stay in treatment.

Still, other
drugs — including alcohol, marijuana, and stimulants figure
indirectly into the drugs-and-AIDS equation. They can depress
immune function, particularly with regular use. Heavy users also
suffer from poor nutrition and bad health-factors which further
reduce immune response.

And other drugs,
including crack and crystal meth, simply make AIDS easier to

..How does smoking crack or crystal make
it easier to get AIDS?

By making it
easier to do the other things that put you at risk — like having
unprotected sex.

That’s because
both crystal and crack increase sexual arousal and impulsiveness
while they reduce inhibition and judgment.

More than most
other drugs, both can cause hyper-arousal and hypersexuality.
And hypersexuality in today’s world puts you at hyper-risk of

The problem
is made worse by the addictiveness of both drugs and by crack’s
short-lived high.

The crack high
is so fleeting, in fact, that users can burn up hundreds of dollars
of crack in a two- or three-day “mission.” Female users
often resort to the only means at their disposal to get more,
which can mean anonymous sex with multiple “suppliers”
every day.

(and -meth) exchanges are so common that crystal and crack users
represent a new high-risk population for AIDS and other sexually-transmitted
diseases, according to public health experts.

In fact, a
number of studies have suggested that the risk of acquiring HIV
may be higher among crack users than intravenous heroin users.

..What can I do to reduce my risk?

The best and
simplest solution is not to use IV drugs.

  • Avoid sex
    with IV drug users — or with other members of high-risk groups.
    And avoid casual or unprotected sex altogether.
  • If you’re
    already an IV drug user, and can’t see your way through to quitting,
    don’t share your needle or works with anyone, ever.
  • If you do
    share needles, take precautions. Flush the needle and syringe
    with household bleach, then rinse them both carefully with water.
    Bleach kills the AIDS virus, but only if you use it every time
    you shoot up.

Still, in the
long run, getting yourself drug-free is the only sure way to
avoid drug-related AIDS.

And when you
stop and think about it, that’s a pretty good reason to take
a step that you’ve probably been thinking about for a long time.

Because using
IV drugs always was a gamble. AIDS has just made staying alive
a longer shot, still.

..Sidebar | Believe
This Hype: Don’t Share AIDS

Early symptoms
of AIDS include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite or weight, diarrhea,
and night sweats, but HIV infection doesn’t necessarily produce
any warning signs. And since treatment works best when started
early, it’s wise to get tested early after any possible exposure.
If you think you may have been exposed:

  • Avoid unprotected sex.
  • Don’t share a hypodermic needle
    or syringe-with anyone.
  • Contact your local or state
    health department, listed in the white pages.
  • Avoid further exposure (through
    IV drug use or unprotected sex) to HIV.

A simple blood
test can determine if you’ve been infected. If the results are

  • Don’t have unprotected sex.
  • Don’t share needles, toothbrushes,
    razors, or other personal care products.
  • If you’re a woman, postpone
    any pregnancies.
  • Get medical treatment. Talk
    over your situation with your doctor and follow all instructions.

For more information,
call 1-800-342-AIDS. Spanish language information is available
at 1-800-344-SIDA.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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