Note: This module has not been updated since the original Addictionary in 1992. We don’t know whether it is still useful.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a disease that breaks down the immune system, leaving a person defenseless against a variety of life-threatening illnesses. AIDS is caused by a virus called human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Because HIV is usually transmitted by sharing needles or having sex with an infected person, most addicts have been or are at increased risk of being exposed to AIDS.

Risk Factors in Addiction

When we first started hearing about AIDS, we heard that those at risk included intravenous drug users, transfusion recipients, gay men, and people from Haiti. This idea was dangerous because many people assumed that they were safe if they were not in one of those groups. Today, AIDS organizations are saying that these generalizations do not hold anymore. In 1985 only 1 percent of AIDS cases resulted from heterosexual sex; by 1991 the figure had risen to 6 percent, and it is increasing rapidly.

Addicts who share needles or syringes are at high risk. Needles and syringes could be sterilized by thoroughly cleaning them, soaking them in 10 percent chlorine bleach, and rinsing them well, and then repeating that cycle. The problem is that drug addicts are not known for being Very careful about taking precautions.

In 1991, the U.S. city with the highest incidence of HIV positives was Belle Glade, Florida. Researchers flocked to this southern Florida town to find out why. It was not from I.V. drug use, as they expected. Instead, they found heavy use of crack cocaine, and a major part of that addictive behavior was the exchange of sex for crack. They found women who had dozens of partners a night. With this exposure, it is no mystery how the HIV virus could spread so rapidly.

Alcoholics and drug addicts may not remember whether or with whom they had sex because of blackouts. Sex addicts are likely to be exposed to HIV infection, partly because of the impulsiveness of addiction. In fact, any kind of addict will experience loss of judgment that could result in exposure to the virus.

The poor self-esteem and body image problems that often accompany eating disorders and other addictions and codependency can increase the vulnerability to sexual advances, and we expect to see more HIV positives among addicts of all kinds.

Testing for AIDS

What can you do if you are worried that you might have been exposed to AIDS? Even if you know you had unprotected sex with a person who is HIV positive, you may not have it. There have been cases where the spouse of an AIDS patient never got the virus, even after years of exposure.

You can get an HIV-antibody blood test to find out. This simple test is available through your doctor, a special clinic, or a public health unit. You should discuss the test and what it may mean before and after the test is done. The test would not show anything for several weeks after exposure, and it may take a week or more to get the results back.

Avoiding AIDS

The virus is spread by anal, vaginal, or oral intercourse with an infected person, by sharing drug needles or syringes with an infected person, or by transmission by mother to baby during pregnancy or birth or breast-feeding. Also, since 1985, careful screening and laboratory testing of blood donations have greatly reduced the risk of getting AIDS from transfusions (there is no risk in donating blood).

Assuming you are not using intravenous drugs, you have little danger of exposure to AIDS if you abstain from sexual intercourse or if you and your partner are negative and you both abstain from sex with anyone else. Many people have been exposed by mates they thought were having sex exclusively with them, however.

If you are not absolutely sure about your partner, the greatest safety comes from proper use of a condom. Some experts believe that a spermacide (like nonoxynol-9) may kill the virus during intercourse, too. So the combination of condom and spermacide is best. Select a latex condom with a disease prevention claim on the package label, never reuse condoms, make sure they are not gummy or stuck to themselves, and are within any expiration dates. If you use external spermacide or lubricant, make sure they are water-based and not oil-based, as these may weaken the latex in the condom.

Living with AIDS

About half of those with HIV develop AIDS within ten years, but this length of time can vary greatly. If you find out you are HIV positive, you should remember that it is not necessarily fatal. While a cure or vaccine may be many years away, there are promising treatments being tested all the time.

Addicts in recovery have a great advantage: they already have a strong support group to help them cope with HIV or AIDS. You can turn to your Twelve-Step or other existing support groups, and you can locate AIDS support groups in your area. As in any serious crisis in life, your spirituality will be tested and quite likely strengthened as you search for meaning and restructure your life to deal with AIDS. Many recovering addicts find themselves doing another kind of Twelve Stepping, as they reach out to share their experience, strength, and hope with others with HIV.

If you are HIV positive, you have a moral responsibility to share that information with recent, present, and future sex partners. Recovery from addiction hinges on honesty and love for self and others, and we find it hard to believe that spirituality includes knowingly endangering another’s life. You have a chance to demonstrate love by caring about others, even in your time of crisis.

Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases

There are many other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that are not as dramatic as AIDS but still are serious and some potentially fatal. A lot of what we have said about risk factors and prevention of AIDS applies to the more common STDs: chlamydial infections, trichomoniasis, genital herpes, pubic lice, genital warts, and others, including classic gonorrhea and syphilis.

For more information, call the National AIDS Hotline, 1-800-342-AIDS or 1-800-AIDS-TTY (for deaf access), or the National STD Hotline, 1-800-227-8922. They provide information twenty-four hours a day. Ask for their pamphlet, “Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases … Especially AIDS.”

AIDS, see also: Acceptance, Abuse, Behavior, Blackouts, Body image, Crisis, Guilt & shame, Honesty, Incest, Intimacy, Love & caring, Responsibility, Self-image, Sex, Sex addiction groups, Spirituality, Surrender, Therapy & treatment.

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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