What is AIDS? What is HIV?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is caused by a virus known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV.

HIV damages a person’s body by destroying specific blood cells, called CD4+ T cells, which are crucial to helping the body fight diseases.

Where did HIV come from?

The earliest known case of infection with HIV-1 in a human was detected in a blood sample collected in 1959 from a man in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (How he became infected is not known.) Genetic analysis of this blood sample suggested that HIV-1 may have stemmed from a single virus in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

In 1983, scientists discovered the virus that causes AIDS. The virus was at first named HTLV-III/LAV (human T-cell lymphotropic virus-type III/lymphadenopathy-associated virus) by an international scientific committee. This name was later changed to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

For many years scientists theorized as to the origins of HIV and how it appeared in the human population, most believing that HIV originated in other primates. Then in 1999, an international team of researchers reported that they had discovered the origins of HIV-1, the predominant strain of HIV in the developed world. A subspecies of chimpanzees native to west equatorial Africa had been identified as the original source of the virus. The researchers believe that HIV-1 was introduced into the human population when hunters became exposed to infected blood.

How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

Prior to 1996, scientists estimated that about half the people with HIV would develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varied greatly from person to person and depended on many factors, including a person’s health status and their health-related behaviors.

Since 1996, the introduction of powerful anti-retroviral therapies has dramatically changed the progression time between HIV infection and the development of AIDS. There are also other medical treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS, though the treatments do not cure AIDS itself. Because of these advances in drug therapies and other medical treatments, estimates of how many people will develop AIDS and how soon are being recalculated, revised, or are currently under study.

As with other diseases, early detection of infection allows for more options for treatment and preventative health care.

How does HIV infection lead to AIDS?

HIV attacks the body’s immune system, our defence against infection and disease, and weakens it over time. A person who has HIV gradually loses the protection of his or her immune system and begins to experience health problems. These may be fairly small problems at first – skin problems or yeast infections – but over time the illnesses become more serious. The amount of time that it takes HIV to begin to affect a person’s health varies widely from one individual to another. When a person is diagnosed with one of the serious illnesses or cancers which are “AIDS-defining,” the person is then said to have AIDS.

How could I become infected with HIV?

HIV is a fragile virus that cannot survive outside of the body. That is why you cannot be infected with HIV from toilet seats or from sharing dishes or utensils. HIV does not get passed through the air – as a cold or flu does.

HIV infected body fluids must reach the HIV-susceptible cells in the blood, usually through a break in the skin, absorption through mucosal membranes (mucosa) or through some disruption to the mucosa. Mucosa are the moist surfaces of the body which line most of the body cavities and hollow internal organs such as the vagina, rectum, mouth, urethra, nose and eyelids.

HIV does not get passed from one person to another through deep kissing, mutual masturbation or inserting fingers into the vagina or anus. You cannot get HIV from body fluids such as saliva, sweat or urine.

There are five body fluids which have enough HIV in them to infect someone:

  • Blood
  • semen
  • vaginal fluids (including menstrual fluids)
  • rectal fluids
  • breast milk

HIV is spread primarily by:

  • Not using a condom when having sex with a person who has HIV. All unprotected sex with someone who has HIV contains some risk. However:
    • Unprotected anal sex is riskier than unprotected vaginal sex.
    • Among men who have sex with other men, unprotected receptive anal sex is riskier than unprotected insertive anal sex.
  • Having multiple sex partners or the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can increase the risk of infection during sex. Unprotected oral sex can also be a risk for HIV transmission, but it is a much lower risk than anal or vaginal sex.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, or other equipment used to prepare illicit drugs for injection.
  • Being born to an infected mother—HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.

How do I know if I have HIV?

You can’t tell if you have HIV by how you look or feel. You can’t tell whether another person has HIV by looking at him or her. People with HIV can look and feel healthy for many years. The only way to know if you have HIV is by having a blood test. This test is known as an “HIV test” or an “HIV antibody test.” You may have heard it referred to as an “AIDS test” but the test does not tell you if you have or will get AIDS; it tells you only whether you have been infected with HIV. This test looks for antibodies that are made by the immune system when a person is infected with HIV. It is a very accurate test. If antibodies to HIV are found, the test result is referred to as positive.” The person is HIV antibody positive (or “HIV positive,” or “HIV+”). This means that the person has been infected with HIV. If antibodies are not found, the test result is referred to as “negative” and the person is HIV antibody negative (or “HIV-negative,” or “HIV-”). This means that the person has not been infected with HIV. There is a gap between the time a person is infected with HIV and the time when the antibodies are formed. This period can be from 3 to 12 weeks. It is called the “window period.” For this reason, it is important to wait for twelve weeks after engaging in activities that may have caused HIV infection before getting tested. This will ensure an accurate HIV antibody test result.

The following may be warning signs of advanced HIV infection:

  • rapid weight loss
  • dry cough
  • recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • profound and unexplained fatigue
  • swollen lymph glands in the armpits,groin, or neck
  • diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • pneumonia
  • red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders

What happens after someone is infected with HIV?

Soon after infection, some people experience a brief, flu-like “seroconversion illness” at the time when antibodies to HIV are being created. But most feel completely well and have no symptoms. During this period, the person is said to be “asymptomatic.” They may not even know they have been infected. They may continue to feel well for a long time. In fact, some people who were infected with HIV over ten or fifteen years ago continue to feel completely well today.

During the period when the person with HIV is feeling healthy, their CD4 cells are defending the body against HIV. Lab results would likely show that the person’s CD4 count to be fairly high and their viral load (which measures the amount of HIV in the blood) to be fairly low.

As their CD4 cells decline, a person with HIV becomes vulnerable to various infections and illnesses. This period of declining health is sometimes referred the “symptomatic period.” The organisms which cause these infections are quite common and present in most people’s bodies but are kept under control by a healthy immune system. As HIV weakens the person’s immune system, these organisms can no longer be controlled, and illness occurs. These illnesses are known as “opportunistic infections” and include such diseases as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (“PCP”) and toxoplasmosis (“toxo”).

Are there treatments for HIV infection?

In addition to drugs and other treatments which can treat, control orprevent opportunistic infections, progress has been made in producing effective drugs which combat HIV directly. These drugs, often known as “combination therapies” or “the cocktail,” slow down the effect of HIV on the immune system by interfering with the replication of HIV. This form of therapy usually consists of a number of drugs taken on a strict timetable. Although these drugs are not easy to take and have side effects, when combination therapy is successful it can improve the health of people with HIV, sometimes causing remission of their symptoms in addition to reduced viral load (that is to say, reduced amount of HIV in their body), increased number of CD4 cells, and reduced likelihood of progressing to AIDS. Combination therapy does not work in everyone. The length of time that the drugs are effective against the virus varies, and drug resistance can set in, making the drugs ineffective.

Living with HIV/AIDS

Living with a serious, stigmatized and potentially life-threatening illness can be extremely stressful and difficult. Although someone with HIV may remain in good health for many years, there is a lot of fear,prejudice and misunderstanding in society about HIV/AIDS and the people who have this disease. People with HIV/AIDS may encounter hostility and rejection even from the people closest to them. They may lose their jobs, their homes or important relationships as a result of people’s negative attitudes about HIV/AIDS. Because of the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, people may find it difficult to tell others about their diagnosis and may tell only a few close friends. The burden of secrecy can be hard to bear. Expressing your sexuality when you know that you could pass a serious infection on to someone else can also be extremely difficult. Many people find support through counseling or by participating in support groups for people with HIV/AIDS.  People with HIV/AIDS may also choose to make some adjustments in their lives to help them to cope with their diagnosis. They may try to stay healthy by eating good food, exercising or using complementary therapies. They may read lots of information about HIV and HIV therapies. Although living with HIV/AIDS can be a difficult and challenging experience, many people with HIV/AIDS live meaningful, satisfying and happy lives and contribute in important ways to their communities.

 If you would like more information or have personal concerns, call 

Helpline 1800113456