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The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that infects the immune system of the body and renders it vulnerable to infections and diseases. HIV attacks and destroys certain white blood cells (WBCs) called CD4+ cells. It causes a syndrome known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which is the last stage of HIV infection. It needs to be emphasised here that HIV is the virus, and AIDS is the medical condition resulting from HIV infection. Being infected with HIV does not necessarily mean a person has AIDS. If left untreated, HIV infection can progress and develop into the condition called AIDS. On the other hand, when HIV is diagnosed before it becomes AIDS, medicines can arrest or slow down the damage to the immune system of the body. While HIV itself doesn’t result in deaths, fatalities may occur due to other opportunistic infections like tuberculosis that ravage through the body because of the weak immune system.
CAUSES AND RISK FACTORS
The most common ways in which HIV is transmitted are through bodily fluids such as semen, blood, breast milk etc. through activities like sexual intercourse, unsterilized needle injections and breast feeding.
Though HIV may also be found in a person’s faeces, saliva, sputum, nasal secretions, sweat, urine, vomit or tears, these are not potent enough to cause infection. HIV is also not transmitted through mosquitoes and other insects.
In many cases, people affected with HIV do not show any symptoms. HIV Symptoms can vary from one person to another and may depend on the stage of the infection.
Early symptoms of HIV are influenza-like symptoms which appear within two to six weeks of contracting the HIV infection. These include fever, chills, muscle aches, headaches, sore throat, rash, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits and groin, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
These initial symptoms may disappear after some time, and further symptoms may not be seen for many years. But, during this time, the virus is active and is constantly weakening the body’s defences. This phase can last for many years if no medications are taken, during which the person appears outwardly healthy.
The symptoms during the later stages, when the infection has progressed to the point that the CD4+ cell count has decreased to very low levels ( under 500 cells/mL), appear due to secondary infections and other complications. This stage of infection is known as AIDS. The symptoms during this phase include chronic diarrhoea, high fever, dry cough, night sweats, blurred vision, white spots in the mouth and on the tongue, breathlessness, pneumonia, recurrent fevers, extreme fatigue and neurological disorders like depression and memory loss.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
The only way to know for sure whether a person is infected with HIV is by conducting tests. This is rather important, as getting early treatment can slow down the rate of infection by the virus and enable a person to stay healthy, and also the prevent spreading the infection to other people.
Diagnosis is carried out through a blood test that specifically screens for the virus. HIV testing can involve two types of test: a preliminary test that detects HIV antibodies and a confirmatory test. The timing and method of treatment varies depending on the patient’s parameters like the CD4+ count, viral load, drug resistance and other existing conditions.
There is no known cure or vaccination for HIV. The most effective treatment for HIV is Antiretroviral Therapy (ART), a combination of medicines that aims to control the amount of virus in the body. Using multiple medications that work in different ways helps prevent the virus from becoming resistant to the treatment. In this disease, as in many other cases, prevention is the most vital aspect. Some preventive and curative measures are as follows:
HIV is a relatively modern disease and has no known treatment options. Therefore, preventive measures are the best way to avoid contracting this disease, or to prevent the infection from worsening.