Health, Mind & Body Health, Mind & Body Health, Mind & Body

Knowledge important in the fight against HIV/AIDS

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 25 million people have died from HIV/AIDS since the onset of the epidemic roughly 30 years ago. By 2008, more than 33 million people across the globe were living with HIV/AIDS, including more than two million children under age 15.

Though great strides have been made with regards to diagnosing and treating HIV/AIDS, many feel there is still a significant way to go before this deadly disease can be defeated once and for all. One of best assets in the fight against HIV/AIDS is understanding the disease, which can lead to more effective prevention and a greater appreciation of what those battling the disease are facing every day.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that infects cells of the immune system, destroying or impairing their function. Once a person is infected, the virus works to progressively deteriorate the body's immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight infection and disease. The infections that result are known as "opportunistic infections," as they take advantage of an infected person's weakened immune system.

What is AIDS?

AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is used to describe the most advanced stages of HIV infection. When a person has AIDS, he or she is fighting any of more than 20 opportunistic infections or HIV-related cancers.

How is HIV transmitted?

The WHO notes that HIV can be transmitted in a number of ways. At the onset of the epidemic, HIV was thought to be transmitted only through sexual intercourse. While HIV can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, including oral sex, there are a number of additional ways the disease can be transmitted, including:

* transfusion of contaminated blood

* sharing of contaminated needles, syringes or other sharp instruments

* between a mother and her infant during pregnancy

* childbirth

* breastfeeding

Who is most at risk of getting HIV?

Though no one is immune to HIV, there are some people who are at greater risk of HIV than others. These people include:

* injection drug users who share needles

* infants born to mothers with HIV who did not receive HIV therapy during the pregnancy

* sexually active people who engage in unprotected sex, especially with partners who have additional high-risk behaviors, are HIV-positive or have AIDS

* people who received blood transfusions or clotting products between 1977 and 1985, before screening for the HIV virus became standard practice

How long does it take before AIDS develops?

Once infected with HIV, those infected often want to know how quickly AIDS will develop. That varies depending on the individual. If untreated, those infected with HIV will develop symptoms of HIV-related illness within 5 to 10 years. But the time between an HIV infection and an AIDS diagnosis can be more than a decade.

Are there symptoms of HIV?

There are symptoms of HIV, but many people do not develop any symptoms upon being infected. However, within several days or weeks of exposure to HIV, some people do experience a flu-like illness characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and enlarged lymph glands in the neck.

Upon infection, symptoms might not appear or be very slow to develop, a period that can last as long as a decade. Though no symptoms appear, the virus will continue to actively multiply and infect and kill cells of the immune system. The virus can gradually kill CD4+ or T4 cells, which are the immune system's primary infection fighters.

Once the immune system has been weakened, then the following symptoms might develop:

* lack of energy

* weight loss

* frequent fevers and sweats

* persistent or frequent yeast infections

* persistent skin rashes or flaky skin

* short-term memory loss

* mouth, genital or anal sores resulting from herpes infections

If AIDS has developed, the affected might begin to experience cough and shortness of breath, seizures and lack of coordination, difficulty swallowing, forgetfulness, fever, vision loss, weight loss, and extreme fatigue.

More information about HIV/AIDS is available at www.who.int.