What is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the name given to a virus that causes the immune system of a human being to become weak, due to the destruction of important cells that are responsible for fighting off infection and disease. There is currently no cure for HIV, although it can now be effectively controlled with the right medical care. There are a number of demographic groups that tend to be more likely to develop HIV than is the case with other groups, due to a number of different factors, including geography, risky behaviour and lack of safe sex.
HIV is spread by certain bodily fluids that attack the T cells, also known as CD4 cells, that make up the immune system. HIV can eventually destroy enough of these cells to make it impossible for the body to be able to defend itself against diseases and infections. A weak immune system can also be taken advantage of by some opportunistic forms of cancer, which is a sign that the individual has developed full blown AIDS; this the final stage of HIV.
HIV can be controlled, although not cured, by the medication known as antiretroviral therapy (ART). Taken every day in the correct manner, this medication can keep HIV infected people healthy, prevent them from infecting anyone else, and make a dramatic difference to their life expectancy. Before ART was introduced during the mid 1990s, those suffering from HIV could develop AIDS in the space of just a couple of years, but today an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and ART can result in an infected person having a perfectly normal lifespan.
A kind of chimpanzee located in central Africa has been identified by scientists as the source of HIV human infection, and is believed to have most likely crossed species when humans encountered their infected blood, possibly while hunting them for food. Some studies show that the first HIV infection in a human being could have occurred as far back as the late 19th century. The virus spread across Africa over the course of several decades, and eventually to other parts of the world. It was first noticed in the United States in the mid to late 1970s.
Acute HIV infection is the first stage, and those infected are likely to experience an illness similar to the flu for several weeks within two to four weeks of infection; this is the body’s natural response. However, some people experience no symptoms at all and may be unaware that they have been infected. If you have symptoms and fear infection via drug use or sex, seek medical help.
Clinical latency, sometimes also known as chronic HIV infection or asymptomatic HIV infection, is the second stage, where HIV is reproducing at extremely low levels but is still active. People may not fall sick or have symptoms at all during this period, which can last over ten years, though others may move through this stage much faster. It can last for a number of decades for those taking ART in the correct manner every day. However, it is vital to keep in mind that those in this period are still able to infect others, although that is considerably less likely with those on medication. As this phase starts to come to an end, symptoms may begin to present as the viral levels in the body begin to increase.
AIDS, also known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the most serious phase of infection by HIV. People suffering from AIDS possess such seriously damaged immune systems that they begin to acquire an increasing number of serious illnesses, referred to as opportunistic illnesses. People suffering from AIDS can live for as little as just three years without medical treatment. Common symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands, weight loss, chills, sweats and weakness. AIDS is diagnosed when a person’s CD4 cell count falls under 200 cells/mm, or if particular opportunistic illnesses develop. AIDS sufferers can be extremely infectious and have a very high viral load.
It is of crucial importance to be aware of your HIV status in order to make the correct decisions for treatment, and to avoid spreading the virus to others.