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Disease at a Glance: HIV & AIDS

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus attacks the body’s immune system, lowering its ability to ward off infections and disease. The HIV virus invades the immune system’s CD4 or T-cells and uses them to make more copies of itself. These copies then leave the CD4 cells, destroying them in the process. T-cells play a very crucial role of sending out a signal to the immune system to fight intruders like virus and bacteria, so their destruction starts to weaken the immune system. This condition is called HIV infection.

 

Over time, the virus destroys so many CD4 or T-cells that the immune system stops working entirely. This condition is called AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, when the body can no longer fight any intruders like virus or bacteria, leaving it susceptible to opportunistic infections. How long it takes an HIV infection to develop into AIDS varies widely – it can take anywhere from 10-15 years. 

 

HIV may be present in many body fluids, but only specific fluids (like blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk & amniotic fluid) from an HIV-infected person can transmit the virus. These fluids must come in contact with either a mucous membrane or a damaged tissue or be directly injected into the blood stream for transmission to occur. This means HIV can spread through sexual contact with an infected person. It can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy or through breast-feeding. Use of contaminated needles & syringes also exposes a person to HIV; as does transfusion of infected blood and organ transplant.

 

Common Symptoms

Early Stage: Flu-like symptoms may appear 2-4 weeks after exposure
Intermediate Stage: No visible symptoms appear for quite some time 
Late Stage: Weight loss, fever, skin blotches, chronic diarrhoea, fatigue may occur 

 

This means the virus can spread through sexual contact with an infected person – if your partner has HIV, his or her body fluids can deliver the virus into your bloodstream through microscopic breaks or open sores in the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum or mouth. HIV can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy or through breast-feeding. Use of contaminated needles or syringes can also lead to HIV infection; so can transfusion of infected blood or organ transplant.

 

Symptoms of HIV infection vary, depending on the stage of the disease. Around 2-4 weeks after exposure, many patients report flu-like symptoms (fever, sore throat, fatigue, body ache, swollen glands, etc.) that may last for a few weeks. Once this subsides, there are usually no visible signs or symptoms until the condition worsens. That's when symptoms like rapid weight loss, skin rashes & blotches, extreme fatigue & shortness of breath, high fever & night sweats, chronic diarrhoea, etc. start to ravage the body. Opportunistic illnesses may also occur.

 

Treatment comprises a cocktail of anti-retroviral medicines taken for life. These medicines will not free the body of HIV, but they aim to improve the quality and length of life. Anti-retroviral drugs prevent HIV from growing and multiplying, thereby reducing the viral load in the body and helping the immune system to recover somewhat.  If left untreated, the disease is fatal.

 

References:

1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (www.aids.gov)

2. Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (www.cdc.gov)

3. US National Library of Medicine (www.nlm.nih.gov)

4. Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.org)
5. NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk)
6. AIDS Healthcare Foundation (www.aidshealth.org)

 

 

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