When it comes to HIV, most of us know that it is a lifelong condition that doesn’t have a cure, but there is much more to it. In this post, we focus on HIV, its causes, symptoms, screening tests, and other information you ought to take note of.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is a virus that affects the white cells of our immune system. The virus affects the body’s ability to defend against bacteria, other viruses, infections, and other foreign bodies.
While HIV is usually transmitted through sexual contact, one can also get it through blood contamination, shared or reused needles, or from mother to baby during pregnancy. A person cannot get HIV through ordinary contact with an infected individual, such as through kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or through insect bites.
Although the infection can be asymptomatic in the beginning, some symptoms may develop as the infection progresses. Most common symptoms seen are diarrhoea, nausea, cramps, fever, fatigue, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, headache, muscle and joint pain, rash, and sore throat.
HIV vs. AIDS
It’s not uncommon for people to think of HIV and AIDS as the same condition, but that is incorrect. HIV is a virus that gradually leads to deterioration of the immune system. On the other hand, AIDS is a complication that develops in the later stages of HIV infection. AIDS occurs when significant damage to the immune system has occurred as a result of the HIV infection: when CD4+ T count falls below 200, or when a patient has an AIDS-related complication.
How is HIV Detected?
HIV infection is usually diagnosed through a blood test. Sexually active adults should get an HIV screening test at least once a year. This is particularly important for people with many sexual partners. Your doctor will order a test called p24, which tests for HIV antigen and antibodies.
If you do not practice this behaviour of screening for HIV, the alternative is for the diagnosis to be made much later during the disease progress when symptoms appear and the prognosis is worsened.
Here are some worrying statistics:
- 7 million people worldwide are infected with HIV (2016)
- 1 million children around the globe are HIV positive
- 60% people know they are infected, but 40% are unaware
- 1 million people in Asia Pacific region are HIV positive
- 4 million people in East and Southern Africa are HIV positive
- 1 million people in Western and Central Africa have HIV
Prevention and Management of HIV
Prevention of HIV infection involves safe sex practices, avoidance of recreational drugs (intravenous), and regular screening for HIV infection. While there is no cure for HIV infection, one can adopt a proactive approach to manage it. This means that you need to follow the doctor’s orders and take the prescribed medications. Management of HIV also requires a healthy diet, with careful avoidance of foods that are at high risk of contamination. Your doctor will prescribe a few types of anti-virals which you should comply with, as this reduces the probability of the virus developing resistance to the medicines.
HIV and Pregnancy
Pregnant women can spread the virus to their babies during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. You can minimise this risk by seeking your doctor’s advice, adhering to his or her instructions and adopting a healthy lifestyle. Factors that increase the risk of transmitting HIV to your baby are cigarette smoking, vitamin A deficiency, malnutrition, substance abuse, STIs, and breastfeeding. It is recommended that new moms avoid breastfeeding their babies if they have HIV.
Despite all efforts to reduce HIV infection worldwide, it remains a common disease. One can significantly minimise the risk of being infected by HIV by practising safe sex, avoiding changing sexual partners so often, and doing away with drugs and needles, amongst other things. Also, don’t forget to get screened regularly.
If you’re interested in learning more about HIV and the consequences of leaving it untreated, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!