When awareness campaigns around HIV and AIDS began in the 1980s, they largely targeted white, gay males. In fact, in 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported some 108 people were infected with the deadly virus. Today, those numbers exceed 1,000,000.
Indeed, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is on the rise amongst all sectors of the population, although worldwide the face of HIV is increasingly young and female. According the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, women account for half of all HIV cases around the globe, with African women being primarily affected.
Despite its increasing presence and major breakthroughs in AIDS research however, there are still many myths surrounding how people can become infected with HIV. That is why we have composed this guide to give you the facts about this deadly disease, and how it can affect you.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV is a viral infection that affects cells present in our blood, semen and other bodily fluids, which is why it is primarily transmitted through vaginal or anal sex. The infection affects the body's immune system, destroying infection-fighting cells called T-cell lymphocytes, leaving those affected highly susceptible to illnesses their bodies would otherwise be able to fight off (such as pneumonia or even cancer). That is why those who acquire HIV often develop acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS refers to the most advanced stage of the HIV infection.
Modes of Transmission
Risky Sexual Behavior
This includes having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, as well as engaging in any form of sexual contact with someone whose HIV status is unknown. Also, if you are infected with another STD such as syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, or bacterial vaginosis, you are at increased risk for developing the disease. Men who have sex with men (and in particular, African-American men who fall under this category) are also infected at a higher rate than those who engage in heterosexual sex.
People who share drug needles or who come into contact with contaminated blood can become infected with HIV. And while drug needles continue to be a source of contamination, blood transfusions have become an extremely rare transmission method, as extensive security measures were introduced several years ago.
Mother to Child
During pregnancy, a mother may infect her baby with HIV through blood that passed into the placenta. About 25% of HIV-infected women who are pregnant will pass the infection along to their babies. Breastfeeding is another way in which HIV may be spread to the baby, although medications can significantly reduce this risk. Also, women who are delivered via cesarean section have less of a risk of passing HIV on to their newborn baby.
Saliva and/or Casual Contact
There is no evidence that people who exchange saliva with an HIV-infected person will become infected with the virus. The only time when kissing may become risky is if open lesions, such as those from cold sores or herpes, are present. Sweat, tears, urine or fecal matter are other risk-free bodily fluids for the exchange of HIV/AIDS. Therefore, hugging and sharing a bed, utensils and toilet seats pose no known risk to contracting HIV.
Symptoms of HIV
Most people do not experience any symptoms for the first few months after becoming infected with HIV. In some cases, people will experience a flu-like illness within that time that will include a fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and general fatigue. These symptoms however are usually confused with other illnesses and are often dismissed.
For some people, the infection will remain dormant for more than 10 years, although their capacity to infect others will not. In fact, the period before severe symptoms become apparent is also the time when people are most infectious.
In general, people will begin to notice the following HIV symptoms in the months (or years) preceding the onset of AIDS:
- Unexplained fatigue
- Weight loss
- Short-term memory loss
- Flaky skin and/or persistent rashes
- Frequent/persistent yeast infections
- Frequent/severe herpes
- Frequent fevers or sickness (shingles)
- For women, untreatable pelvic inflammatory disease
- For children, stunted growth
There are two main tests that are used to diagnose HIV.
The first is called Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (or ELISA), a test that looks for the presence of antibodies produced by the body in response to HIV. Antibodies are proteins that are produced when the body recognizes a disease and identifies it as a threat. If the test is positive, then it means that HIV antibodies are present; a second test will likely follow to verify the test results.
On the other hand, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) looks for the presence of HIV itself and distinguishes the presence of the virus's genetic material in the bloodstream. PCR can detect the virus within days of infection.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for HIV or AIDS. Antiviral drugs are usually taken to inhibit growth of the HIV-infected cells. However, not everyone responds positively to such drugs. For those who don't respond well to antiviral drugs, highly active antiretroviral therapy (or HAART), in which three or more drugs are combined, may be an effective alternative treatment.
The best solution, however, is prevention. Be sure to get tested for HIV and insist that your sexual partners to as well. And always remember to practice safe sex.
Protect from severe infections by having AIDS testing for a safe sexual health.