Just a few decades ago, very little one was known about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and its advanced disease state, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) but today, thanks to medical research, massive funding efforts and public health education campaigns, we now know much more about these diseases, how to prevent them and how to treat them.
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is transmitted from an infected person to another individual via blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk. HIV attacks the body immune system by destroying the very crucial CD4 Positive T white blood cells which are necessary for the proper functioning of the immune system.
Over time, the immune system inevitably weakens as more and more CD4 T cells are destroyed by the virus. When an individual acquires one or more opportunistic infections, a type of infection that does not cause a disease state in a healthy individual or has an extremely low CD4 T-cell count, he or she is diagnosed with AIDS.
Although there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are a variety of medications that slow the progression of the HIV virus by suppressing its replication. This class of drugs known as antiretrovirals (ARVs) have significantly extended the lifespan of a person living with HIV and improved quality of life. Antiretrovirals are very costly and unfortunately, most of the world affected by this disease does not have adequate access to these life-extending medications. Today, research is being done to increase the efficacy and simplicity of drugs, reduce their side effects and reduce risk of drug resistance in addition to improving global policies to provide wider access to affordable HIV/AIDS medications to those regions that are disproportionately affected by the disease.
While the prognosis for those living with HIV/AIDS has never been better, the immune disease is still a devastating condition that affects an estimated 33 million people worldwide.
The symptoms of HIV/AIDS vary according the stage of the disease.
Acute HIV Infection Once the individual has become into contact with the HIV virus, the virus manifests in the body. This first stage of HIV infection generally lasts for one to two weeks. During this time, almost all newly-infected individuals will develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. Since this cluster of symptoms closely mirrors the characteristics of the flu, often the individual mistakes their illness as a cold or the seasonal flu. This Acute HIV Infection stage is also marked by rapid replication of HIV in the bloodstream.
Seroconversion Once the virus has started to invade the body, the immune system begins to develop antibodies in order to fight off the foreign virus. This process known as seroconversion generally takes place between one and three months following infection. Since the antibodies may take a few months to produce, it is important to wait at least 3 months following suspected exposure to HIV to be tested for the virus.
Asymptomatic Stage Following the Acute HIV Infection and Seroconversion stages, a person with HIV may exhibit no symptoms whatsoever of their illness even though the virus is still very active in the body as it replicates and destroys the protective CD4 T cells of the immune system. The only symptoms an individual will experience in this stage are swollen lymph nodes and a positive HIV antibody test. Practicing safe sex behaviors and proper needle usage continues to be necessary in order to prevent infecting others. Early and Medium Stage of HIV Symptomatic Disease
Medical experts agree that it generally takes about five to seven years for the initial symptoms of HIV to manifest. These mild symptoms like skin rashes, weight loss, night sweats, infections in the nail and in the mouth are the hallmark features of the Early and Medium stage of HIV disease. As the virus begins to take its toll on the immune system, other infections may arise such as herpes, either genital or oral, fever, thrush, yeast infections and continued weight loss as the body has little CD4 T cells to fend off foreign invaders.
Late Stage HIV Disease or AIDS As the virus continues to damage the immune system, the infected individual will begin to develop opportunistic infections (OIs). Common OI’s are pneumonia, toxoplasmosis, candidiasis and Mycobacterium Avium Complex disease (MAC). A diagnosis of AIDS is marked by having one or more OI’s or a CD4 cell count below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. This is the level at which the immune system is unable to protect itself from AIDS-related illnesses and infections.
An AIDS diagnosis does not necessarily mean that the person with HIV is near death. Rather, a more rigorous schedule of medications is prescribed in order to treat the OIs and/or further prevent the destruction of the CD4 cells. Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) involves taking three or more medications in order to aggressively treat the infections and preserve the remaining CD4 cells.
While much is known about the risk factors, prevention and treatment options for HIV, medical scientists still do know what causes the HIV virus. From a conspiracy theory to the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) found in monkeys, there are a number of theories as to what causes HIV but none of them have been proven conclusively.
From what researchers know today, the most plausible cause of the HIV virus is that it is caused by SIV, a virus that is almost identical in genetic make-up to the virus that is found in chimpanzees. SIV transmission from infected monkeys was then passed onto humans where it mutated into the HIV virus.
HIV though is the virus that causes AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome that is the advanced stage of the HIV infection when the body’s immune system is overcome with the HIV virus. Illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancers develop, as the body is no longer able to protect itself from foreign substances.
The risk factors for contracting HIV are well-known thanks to massive public health education and awareness campaigns. But in many parts of the world where there are enormously high infection rates, there still exists misinformation and confusion over how the virus is spread.
The primary risk factor for HIV infection is coming in contact with bodily fluids, either blood, semen or vaginal fluid from someone who has the virus. Therefore, heterosexual and homosexual couples, particularly men who sleep with men, who have unprotected sex are at a high risk for contracting the virus. In addition, intravenous drug users who uses needles or syringes to inject drugs or steroids are also at risk since the needles they use can be contaminated with blood from other infected users. Individuals who received a blood transfusion from the years 1978 to1985 in the United States are also at risk. Today, all donated blood is tested for HIV. Lastly, babies born to an HIV positive mother are at risk for contracting the disease through birth or breast-feeding.
In the 1980s when HIV was first identified, there were very few treatments available for AIDS, the deadly disease caused by the HIV virus and those who were infected had a very grim prognosis. While there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, today HIV is a very treatable disease that no longer carries the hopeless prognosis that it once had. In fact, a recent government study found that the HIV death rate dropped 10 percent, the biggest decline in the past decade. While HIV/AIDS is still a devastating disease, a class of drugs known as retrovirals work to suppress the virus from duplicating so that it cannot spread and further harm the body’s immune system. Currently, there are over 20 different kinds of retrovirals that offer an effective way for controlling and managing the virus. The distinct classes of antiretrovirals are classified according to the phase of the virus replication process that the drug inhibits.
Here is the list of 28 FDA-approved retrovirals: Protease Inhibitors (PIs) Amprenavir (Agenerase) Tipranavir (Aptivus) Indinavir (Crixivan) Saquinavir mesylate (Invirase) Lopinavir and ritonavir (Kaletra) Fosamprenavir Calcium (Lexiva) Ritonavir (Norvir) Darunavir (Prezista) Atazanavir sulfate (Reyataz) Nelfinavir mesylate (Viracept) Fusion Inhibitors Enfuvirtide (Fuzeon) Entry Inhibitors Maraviroc (Selzentry) Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs) Lamivudine and zidovudine (Combivir) Emtricitabine (Emtriva) Lamivudine (Epivir) Abacavir and lamivudine (Epzicom) Zalcitabine and dideoxycytidine (Hivid) Zidovudine (ZDV), azidothymidine (AZT) (Retrovir) Abacavir, zidovudine, and lamivudine (Trizivir) Tenofovir disoproxil fumarate and emtricitabine (Truvada) Enteric coated didanosine (Videx EC) Tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread) Stavudine (Zerit) Abacavir sulfate (Ziagen) Nonnucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs) Etravirine (Intelence) Delavirdine (Rescriptor) Efavirenz (Sustiva) Nevirapine (Viramune)
HIV treatment is very complicated whereby the infected individual must develop a customized treatment plan that usually combines a series or cocktail of different medications, all acting on certain areas of the virus in order to prevent its spread and consequent infections.
While there is no vaccine to prevent HIV, there are a number of ways you can protect yourself from contracting the virus.
- Practice safe sex by using a male or female condom
- Do not share needles
- Maintain a monogamous relationship or practice abstinence
There are number of resources that provide information, support and the latest news in HIV/AIDS research. While years ago, there were only a few handful of specialists who provided medical care to those infected with the HIV virus, today entire research departments, medical and research teams, pharmaceutical companies and specialized centers are dedicated to helping those manage their HIV infection. From medical support to emotional and financial support, organizations and institutions provide a complete continuum of care for the individuals and their loved ones who are affected by this disease.
Below are some of the foremost HIV/AIDS organizations and support networks: