HIV and AIDS - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention & Treatment

HIV and AIDS - Prevention,Screening and Treatment

Authored by DesiMD Doctor on 30 Nov 2015 - 16:38.

HIv-Virus

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a viral infection with 2.1 million living with it in India, as of 2013 study. Despite the various awareness and education programs implemented by various national and international agencies, the knowledge gap and stigma attached to HIV does not seem have come down.

What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a disease impacting the immune system (our body’s defense system) which reduces the capability of the immune system to fight infections. It is caused by HIV virus.

With little knowledge and awareness about AIDS, there is significant stigma in many countries about HIV/AIDS, and is driven by fear and misconceptions about the condition. People are scared to even get screened for it and this has led to the AIDS epidemic. 

Misconceptions and Myths about HIV AIDS:

  • HIV does not spread with kissing. You will not contract the virus as HIV is not present in saliva.
  • ​​Having intercourse with a virgin will not cure HIV/AIDS. Instead the person will continue having the disease and if they give in to this myth, will also be responsible for spreading it to many others
  • A common misconception is that HIV and AIDS are the same. AIDS is the disease whereas HIV is the virus that causes the diseases
  • It is a misconception that HIV can spread through casual contact like touching, hugging. This is not true.
  • Having HIV does NOT mean you are a bad person or cannot live a relatively normal life. Many honest, hard-working people, and celebrities from famous athletes (ex: Magic Johnson) to famous authors and scientists, have HIV.
  • People with HIV/AIDS do NOT actually die from HIV infection itself, but from the consequences of a non-functional immune system: opportunistic infections.

 

HIV is spread only through the following means:

●        Sexual contact ( unprotected sex)

●        Direct contact with HIV-positive blood and other body fluids through broken skin

●        During pregnancy (mother-to-infant)

Sexual transmission: HIV passes through rectal, genital or oral membranes via penetrative sexual contact. The risk of spread is highest with anal intercourse and lowest (but still present) with oral sex. Using condoms during intercourse can significantly reduce the risk of spreading infection.

Contact with HIV positive blood: Exposure to contaminated blood to broken skin, contaminated tattoo needles or needles in the healthcare setting, blood transfusions from HIV positive donors,  sharing needles for IV drugs, are all ways in which HIV can spread through infected blood contact.

Maternal-infant: HIV-positive mothers can also transmit HIV to the fetus (baby in the womb) during the last few weeks of pregnancy. Fortunately, there are now medicines for the HIV+ mothers which lower the risk of spreading HIV to the baby only 1% from a scary 20%. HIV+ mothers are generally advised not to breastfeed their infant, as HIV virus is present in breast milk and there is a risk of HIV transmission to the child.

The risk of actually developing HIV/AIDS depends on the viral load the infected person has received through exposure. At the same time, if an HIV-positive person who is taking HIV medicines, are less likely to pass on the HIV virus even with the above referred kinds of exposure. If you think you have been exposed to the factors referred above, please contact your doctor for testing.

What does the HIV virus do to your body?

Once infected by HIV, the virus infects a particular type of blood cells in the immune system, called CD4+ T cells. As a result, these cells start dying and their concentration starts to decline. The immune system slowly loses its function to fight infections. When the infection fighting ability falls to critically low levels, the HIV infection manifests with symptoms called as AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome). The body loses its ability to protect itself from various infections, including cancer.

Therefore, as the disease naturally progresses, the infected person tends to develop more severe infections than someone with a normal immune system. The rate of progression varies widely and depends on traits of the immune system, the strain of HIV, the presence of certain co-infections and the person treated with medicines or not.

 

 

The symptoms for an HIV infection are not specific as other viral infections like mono or flu can show the same symptoms.

Acute HIV infection, also called as the Primary HIV infection, develops two to four weeks after exposure to risk factors and manifests with the following symptoms, similar to any other infection. These symptoms remain until antibodies (Virus fighting cells) are produced in the body. The symptoms are:

●        Fevers

●        Sore throat

●        Fatigue

●        Enlarged lymph glands

●        Rash

●        Weight loss

●        Muscle aches

After acute HIV infection, the later stages are often asymptomatic (no symptoms) until it gets to very advanced stages where one can develop steep weight loss, malnutrition and secondary infections. 

The immune system of the body plays a primary role in fighting infections. With the immune system shattered, opportunistic infections from bacteria, fungi, and parasites take advantage of the weakened immune system in HIV-positive hosts. These infections often include more severe versions of common infections like flu, strep throat, diarrhea, tuberculosis etc. that a HIV- person can be treated for, easily.

As HIV progresses into AIDS, more unusual infections, which are rarely seen in people with normal immune systems, can occur like the fungal infections of the throat and central nervous system. Not only does HIV open the door for more severe and unusual co-infections, but co-infections like tuberculosis and hepatitis C also accelerate HIV progression. In addition to opportunistic/coinfections, HIV also increases the risk of certain cancers like the lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. HIV can also increase the risk of common medical conditions like heart and liver diseases.

Despite extensive research, there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV, primarily because of the virus’s ability to rapidly change and elude therapies targeted against it. There are currently antiretroviral medicine combinations (HAART) which can suppress (but not eliminate) the HIV virus to a level that dramatically delays progression of the disease, even to a point that it allows an HIV +ve person to live a normal lifespan.

 

 

It is important to remember that you, as an individual are only empowered by seeking knowledge. Although you may initially face stigma while seeking HIV testing, you will perform a great deed for yourself, your loved ones, and also set an example for others. It is important to remember the following:

1.    Exposure to HIV risk factors: If you’ve had a potential exposure to HIV, you should strongly consider getting tested for HIV. It is diagnosed by a blood test for HIV antibodies. However it takes 1-6 months for the body to make antibodie,s so there is a “window period” where the test may be negative even if you have spreadable HIV infection. Unless your health institution offers an expensive HIV genetic test, your doctor may ask you to repeat the test at an interval of several-months.

2.    Undiagnosed: If you have undiagnosed HIV, it implies that you are untreated. This results in an average lifespan of only about 10 years, at the end of which you will not have a good quality of life.

3.    Diagnosis helps: On the other hand, if you do seek diagnosis and get treated for HIV, your chances to live a normal life with a normal lifespan, increases. (see section on HIV treatment for details). This will also help you take measures in preventing the spread of HIV to your loved ones, including your significant other/spouse and future children.

4.    Spread awareness: Once diagnosed, you can request your doctor to keep confidential as per the UNAIDS/WHO policy. Or you can use your diagnosis to enlighten others through knowledge and open discussion to lift the fear and stigma against HIV and AIDs  (don’t give up!).

 

Medicine has truly come a long way with understanding HIV, and this knowledge has given rise to many powerful weapons to fight the disease. One of these is the Antiretroviral Drug Therapy, also known as ART. Anti-retroviral drugs significantly decrease the risk of passing HIV to someone else.

These medicines are generally expensive and must be taken consistently to prevent the virus from developing resistance. Before starting the treatment, you have to commit to a lifetime of consistent therapy. Your doctor will likely monitor your HIV viral load and CD4 count periodically, and may initiate ART once your CD4 count falls below a certain level (such as 350 or 500 cells/microliter of blood).

It is always better to prevent it from contracting the virus by knowing the risk factors. The adage “Prevention is better than cure” helps a great deal in preventing it from spreading.

For questions and queries, you can contact our doctors here through our Ask a Doctor’ (free of cost) initiative.

 

The time tested ways to prevent the spread of HIV is to take up preventive measures and routine testing.

Preventive Measures include:

●     Using condoms during sexual intercourse

●     Using sterilized needles for tattoos and injections

●     Asking your barber to use a sterilized blade every time.

●     Majority of those infected do not show symptoms. Hence, screening is recommended in many countries to proactively look for          HIV.

*Disclaimer This is not medical advice. The content is for educational purposes only. Please contact your doctor for any health care issues.