To an average individual, HIV spells AIDS. That is not, however, the case. HIV and AIDS are not very different, but the difference, inconspicuous though it may seem, is there. That may be why they usually go hand in hand. It is important however, to outline the differences. HIV is a virus; a lentivirus in actual fact, which is a subset of viruses called retroviruses or slow viruses; the virus that leads to AIDS. Scientific research proves that, AIDS is the final of four stages of HIV, the first three being the window stage, the seroconversion stage and the symptom-free stage respectively. HIV is called a retrovirus because it is a progressing virus. It invades the body through mucous membranes and blood stream (through blood to blood contact) and exists in bodily fluids- semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate or breast milk. Once in, the virus begins its journey into the body with the attack and destruction of the immune system cells thereby causing deterioration of the immune system. This inevitably leads to AIDS.
HIV is said to have originated from African, non-human primates and transferred to humans in the 20th century. There are 2 subtypes; HIV-1, which is a more virulent type and easily transmitted and is the cause of majority of HIV infections worldwide and HIV-2, which is less transmittable and largely confined to West Africa. These strains were found to have originated from Cameroun and Guinea Bissau/ Gabon respectively.
There are many ways through which HIV can be transmitted, but the major ones are through infected needles (or sharp objects), unsafe sex, breast milk and vertical transmission (also known as mother-to-child transmission).
However, it cannot be transmitted through handshakes, hugs, sharing the same mug or spoon with an infected individual, or sitting in the same chair.
HIV is a deadly virus which infects the most vital cells of the immune system such as the CD4+ T cells and macrophages. The infection causes a rapid drop in the number of CD4+ T cells by killing the cells and causing an increased rate of apoptosis (programmed cell death).
When the count of these cells (CD4+ T cells) drops below 200, and 2 or more opportunistic infections set in, then the individual can be diagnosed as an AIDS patient.
How then can HIV be treated?
In present day, there are a few drugs for treatment of the virus which are called antiretroviral drugs or anti-HIV drugs.
These drugs however require total commitment and must be taken throughout an individual’s life and at the right time too, because the virus can easily develop resistance to these drugs. They have also been known to give severe side effects which can now be reduced.
HIV may take about ten or more years to develop into full blown AIDS in an average person. This time interval ranges however, from individual to individual and well depends on having a reasonable diet.
Symptoms to show the presence of this deadly virus?
The most effective way to know if an individual has got the virus is to take a test. Some people however develop flu-like symptoms like rashes and swollen glands for a short period of time, but these symptoms do not necessarily depict the presence of HIV. Most often, individuals are asymptomatic and feel healthy, but can pass the disease on to other unsuspecting individuals. It is therefore important for an individual to take the test if he feels he might have chances of contacting the virus. The test may not be accurate if it is taken less than three months since the last exposure.
HIV has no current cure, but it CAN be prevented. As the saying goes
”Prevention is better than cure.”
The best way of preventing infection as recommended by the World Health Organization is ABSTINENCE. However, practicing safe sex (latex condoms are only about 85% effective when used correctly) when one cannot abstain from sex, avoiding sharing sharp objects with people is also recommended. These are few of the many ways of preventing the spread of this pandemic disease which affects about 0.6 percent of the world’s population.
Being diagnosed with HIV is not however, the end of the world. One can still have a full, normal, long and happy life with the virus being just a footnote in your existence. The first step to this life, is to get tested. A pregnant woman who has tested positive doesn’t necessarily need to pass it on to her unborn child. Antiretroviral drugs have been known to reduce this risk from 25 percent to 2 percent. There have been stories of particular people with HIV who have normal kids AND a pretty normal life.
Being HIV positive doesn’t make you less human than anyone else, it only means you have a virus that CAN be treated. People have been known to survive with this disease for over thirty years with good treatment. The key is early detection.
Different societies have different un-called for ways of ‘dealing with’ HIV patients. Some go as far as burning them. Other not so severe consequences of having the disease include estrangement from all forms of human life, even exile from the community. All these are not necessary, these patients are human like everyone else and alienation is not the way to banish the disease from the society. Each and every society should be more considerate to people living with this disease, it cannot be contacted by talking to them, and sharing with them and making them feel accepted. HIV is real, and people should be made aware of that fact. The earlier we all learn that we have to come together and fight it, the better.
An individual can live a normal life with HIV. It is JUST a virus.