HIV and AIDS is one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide, as well as one of the biggest threats, currently, to humanity.
According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV or AIDS, as of the end of 2015.
What is HIV, and What is AIDS?
AIDS is the final stage of an HIV infection. HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus, while AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is the condition brought upon by HIV infection. It occurs when the immune system is so severely damaged that a person is no longer able to fight off infections.
A person can be infected with HIV and not necessarily develop full-blown AIDS.
The Effects of HIV and AIDS on the Human Body
Once HIV infects the body, it directly attacks the immune system, gradually weakening defenses against invading diseases. Eventually, the virus will attack the entire body.
HIV targets the specific type cells in the body that fight off diseases and viral infections, known as CD4 cells. CD4 cells (also known as T-helper cells) are white blood cells that are a vital part of the immune system and critical for its functioning. This causes people to develop weak immune systems, and become susceptible to illnesses in which people with healthy immune systems would be able to avoid much easier.
How fast HIV infection progresses or affects the body varies from person to person. Factors such as personal health and age – as well as how quickly treatment is sought after does determine the progression. Some people are able to live years with HIV infection without it developing into AIDS.
Further factors which may speed up the time HIV infection develops into AIDS include genetic background, older age, poor nutrition, or co-infection with other diseases such as hepatitis C or tuberculosis.
People can contract HIV though contact with blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and even breastmilk. The virus is most commonly passed on to others though sex and sharing needles – or by mother-to-child infection during pregnancy.
It’s vital for people to always practice safe sex and take as many precautions as necessary in avoiding contact with unsanitary needles, whether it be during a medical visit or recreational use.
There are several misconceptions people have about contracting HIV, which include contracting HIV from shaking hands, hugging, kissing, sneezing, sharing toilets, sharing utensils and cutlery, or other forms of casual contact. These methods cannot transmit the disease.
The 3 Stages of HIV Infection
The Acute HIV Infectious Stage is the first stage of HIV infection, occurring between 2-4 weeks after infection. Many people during this stage will begin to experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, swollen glands, aches and pains, rashes, and headaches
. These set of symptoms is known as acute retroviral syndrome or ARS. It develops as the body’s response to HIV infection.
The virus is heavily produced in the body during this stage and CD4 cells in the body dramatically drop. During this point, there is an extremely high risk of spreading HIV, so it’s vital to take any necessary precautions to reduce the risk of transmission.
However, the immune system will eventually stabilize the virus after a period of acute infection. This is known as the viral set point. This means that the virus has stabilized in the body and the CD4 count begins to increase again – although, never to the pre-infectious levels.
The Clinical Latency Stage follows, in which the virus now lives inside in a person without producing any symptoms – or mild symptoms, at best. This stage is also sometimes referred to as chronic HIV infection or asymptomatic HIV infection. During this stage, the virus continues to replicate, but at lower levels. This stage generally lasts up to 10 years, although it may progress much faster in some people.
The final stage is AIDS – when HIV infection develops into AIDS.
A healthy immune system has a CD4 count of between 500 and 1,600, whereas a person with AIDS has a count below 200. This is the point in which a person’s immune system has become so badly damaged that they become completely vulnerable to opportunistic infections – infections caused by pathogens which do not cause disease in people with healthy immune systems, but become pathogenic due to a person’s immune system being unable to fight off infection. But regardless of CD4 count, any person who has developed one or more of an opportunistic illness is considered to have AIDS.
Symptoms of AIDS include:
- Memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders
- Excessive diarrhea, lasting for over a week
- Extreme fatigue
- Recurring fever
- Profuse night sweats
- Rapid weight loss
- Blotches on the skin, inside of the mouth, nose, and eyelids
- Sores in the mouth, genitals, and anus
- Swelling of the lymph glands in the neck, armpits, and groin
It’s important to note that the symptoms of AIDS may simply be symptoms related to other illnesses. The best way to be certain of infection is to have an HIV test.
HIV Infection and AIDS Treatment
Currently, there is no known cure for HIV infection and AIDS, but there are medications available to treat HIV infection.
There are over 25 medically approved drugs to treat HIV infection and AIDS, known as antiretroviral drugs (ARV). These have the responsibility of keeping HIV from making copies of itself and spreading, with the added benefit of lowering the risk of spreading it to others.
HIV treatment involves using a combination of ARV drugs to fight infection. This is known as Antiretroviral therapy (ART). This is not a cure for the disease but a way to control the virus and allow infected people to live longer – and also helps to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to others. It is currently recommended for anyone infected with HIV to begin ART.
If someone is concerned that they may have become exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours (3 days), ARV drugs can also be used as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to help reduce the risk of infection. It needs to be taken as soon as possible, within the 3 day time-frame, after contact with the virus to be effective.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is also an option for individuals who are not infected with HIV, but live a high-risk lifestyle and want to take extra measures to prevent HIV infection. This involves taking a pill once daily.
Why It’s Important to Get Tested
Whatever the reason, if you have even the slightest concern that you may have contracted HIV, please get tested. It’s quick and easy, and in most places, completely free.
The only way to know if you’ve been infected with HIV is to get tested. Getting tested early will reduce the anxiety of not knowing and open ways for you to get the right care.
If you are infected, getting diagnosed early also means that you can look after the health of your partner and people you care about. Even if the results are positive, it’s best to know for certain, so that you can move on with your life and do your best to remain as healthy as you can.
By Dr. Anuwat Keerasuntonpong , Infectious Disease Specialist, Medical Center, Bumrungrad Hospital
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