Just*in Time: March 2016

Quick question. Since you can still get the other STDs, can HIV hitch a ride on those when they are transmitted?

Photo by Don Harris © Don Harris Photographics, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo by Don Harris © Don Harris Photographics, LLC. All rights reserved.

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ey, thank you for replying to January’s installment of Just*in Time. This is a very good question and it’s a question I’ve never gotten before. But let me analyze the question before I answer it. I’m guessing what sparked your question was that I spoke of in the last column, which was about PrEP and how someone who is taking PrEP is still susceptible to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

PrEP is highly effective in preventing HIV, period. As far as what the research says, STIs cannot act like a Trojan horse and smuggle in HIV in the presence of PrEP.

But to answer your question about the relationship of HIV and STIs in a general sense: YES, it can go either way. If you have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you can leave yourself open to other STIs; and if you have an STI, you can leave yourself open to HIV.

Let me explain further so everyone understands what I’m talking about. The transmission of HIV and STIs are highly similar. If a person becomes infected with HIV they may have put themselves at risk for other STIs such as chlamydia, hepatitis, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, etc.

With some STIs you are at greater risk of being infected with HIV. STIs, such as herpes and syphilis can cause open sores on the body. These sores allow HIV an easier pathway to introduce itself into the body through the bloodstream. Even though STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea primarily do not show themselves with symptoms of open sores they still leave the body to be more susceptible to being infected with HIV. When the body becomes infected it sends CD4 (cluster of differentiation 4) or helper cells to the infected area to help stop the infection from spreading. But that makes it easier for HIV to introduce itself into the body by attaching itself onto the CD4 cells. Once HIV has attached itself to these cells it will have the ability to infect them and travel throughout the body. So when a person is showing symptoms it is best that a physician check for HIV and vice versa.

Also there is an interesting fact that I found in my research, which I already knew but didn’t think of. If someone is HIV-positive and they are infected with another STI, such as herpes, his or her symptoms can be more severe. Herpes is an STI that will on occasion show itself through sores on the infected part of the body, such as the anus, penis, vagina, mouth, or even face. Seeing as how HIV directly affects the immune system, being co-infected with herpes leaves the body open for more outbreaks of herpes than there would be if there was no HIV infection in the body.

If you are already HIV-positive you can also be more infectious to others if you are co-infected with other STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Seeing as how the body sends more CD4 cells to deal with the STI co-infection it gives HIV more of a chance to infect more CD4 cells, thereby giving HIV the ability to spread more easily throughout the body. Therefore, when an HIV-positive male is co-infected with another STI, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, the HIV viral load in the semen increases. BUT when the STI is treated the HIV viral load tends to decrease.

In conclusion we have to all remain vigilant about taking care of ourselves and understanding the signs that something might be wrong. Do not ignore signs of infection because you could not only be protecting yourself but protecting loved ones as well. One of the things that I wish to see in my lifetime is one pill that protects against all STIs, something like PrEP but on a universal level. Science and medicine are amazing when they have the ability to work together and work together well. Hopefully the future will see more collaboration and more strides in fighting against HIV and STIs.


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].