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02 – What Is HIV – AIDS

HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS if not treated. “Can” is an important word because with our current medical advances, HIV can be controlled with proper medical care. There is still no cure because once you get HIV, you have it for life. Sadly even our most modern treatments can’t rid the body of HIV. However, today’s treatments allow for a lifespan almost as long as someone who does not have HIV as long as the HIV is treated before the disease is in an advanced stage. The stages of HIV are as follows:

(CDC, 2017):

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

Two to four weeks after being infected with HIV, flu-like symptoms appear and last for a few weeks. This is the body’s natural response to an infection, so many people are unaware that they are infected and might not feel abnormally sick at this point. This is why a blood test (called a NAT, nucleic acid, test) is necessary to diagnose infection.

Stage 2: Clinical latency (HIV inactivity or dormancy)

During this stage, people are asymptomatic in that they have little to no symptoms. The HIV is active but at very low levels. The length of this stage depends on medical treatment and how an individual’s system reacts to HIV. Without medication, this stage can last for a decade, though for some this is less. With medication, this stage can last for several decades. However, HIV can still be transmitted during this time. 

Stage 3: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS is the last and most severe phase of the HIV infection. AIDS is an acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is caused by the outside HIV virus, not something that is inherited, which is where the “acquired” part of the word originates. It impacts the immune system, which you probably know is the body’s ability to defend itself from diseases and infections.

AIDS weakens the immune system so that it can no longer effectively defend itself from outside attacks. In this way, AIDS manifests itself as many different conditions that result from the body’s immune system being unable to fight diseases. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about three years. At this phase, the disease is highly infectious.


How HIV and AIDS Affects the Human Body

(UNICEF, 2003):

People who are infected with HIV carry the virus in certain body fluids, especially in blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. The virus can be transmitted only if these fluids enter the bloodstream of another person. This kind of direct entry can occur through the linings of the sexual organs, through injection with a syringe or through a break in the skin, such as a cut or sore.

HIV does not cause someone to become sick right away (although they may experience temporary flu-like symptoms after exposure). In fact, it can take 7 to 10 years before someone infected with HIV sees symptoms of AIDS. During this time, a person may not know that he or she is infected but can infect others.

Once a person has HIV, the virus gradually weakens the body’s immune defense) system, which means that the body is less able to fight off infections. At this stage, such infections (called ‘opportunistic infections’) can easily take hold and cause death if health services and life-prolonging antiretroviral medicines are not available. The most common sicknesses that affect people with HIV are pneumonia (particularly Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), certain cancers (in particular Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma and invasive cervical cancer), malaria, some diarrhoeal diseases and tuberculosis. Some illnesses that are not necessarily fatal can cause severe discomfort, such as thrush (candidiasis) and cytomegalovirus, which can cause blindness.

The HIV test does not test for the actual presence of the virus in the blood. Rather, it tests for molecules that the body produces to fight off the virus. These molecules are called ‘antibodies’. Tests to detect those antibodies in either the blood, saliva or urine are universally available. It is important to note that the saliva and urine of an infected individual contain antibodies to HIV, not HIV itself, so HIV is not transmitted through these fluids. Antibodies start to appear in the blood soon after a person gets infected with the virus, but can only be tested for when they reach high enough concentrations. It can take from 3 to 6 months for antibodies to show up in tests. During this period, tests are likely to be negative for HIV even if a person is infected.

Newborn children of HIV-infected mothers have some of the mother’s antibodies in their blood for about 18 months, even if they are not infected themselves. For this reason, HIV tests on infants will not be accurate during this period.