By Dr. Ishwar Gilada, HIV Specialist,
HIV/AIDS is a type of sexually transmitted disease which is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The HIV virus attacks the immune system and makes the body vulnerable to other diseases. AIDS is the last stage of the HIV infection disease spectrum – HIV infection takes about 10 to 12 years to fully culminate into AIDS in natural course. AIDS completely destroys the immune system and leads to fatal health conditions and diseases such as cancers and other infections because of AIDS. Earlier the journey from HIV infection to AIDS used to be one-way, however with the advent of Anti-Retroviral Therapy, it has become a bilateral one, meaning we can revert an AIDS patient back to just being HIV positive and asymptomatic.
HIV is a retrovirus that infects the vital organs of the human immune system. The virus progresses in the absence of antiretroviral therapy. The rate of virus progression varies widely between individuals and depends on many factors (age of the patient, body’s ability to defend against HIV, access to healthcare, existence of coexisting infections, the infected person’s genetic inheritance, resistance to certain strains of HIV). HIV can be transmitted through:
- Sexual Transmission. It can happen when there is intimate contact of the skin or mucous membrane that has macroscopic or microscopic breach in continuity, with infected sexual secretions. This can happen while having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral and anal sex or sharing sex toys with someone infected with HIV.
- Perinatal Transmission. The mother can pass the infection on to her child during childbirth, pregnancy, and also through breastfeeding.
- Blood Transmission. The risk of transmitting HIV through blood transfusion is nowadays extremely low in developed countries, thanks to meticulous screening and precautions. Among drug users, sharing and reusing syringes contaminated with HIV-infected blood is extremely hazardous. Contrary to popular belief, HIV can never spread by means of kissing as the virus cannot survive outside the body.
- The early symptoms of HIV appear within a few weeks of contamination by the virus. The early symptoms include headache, pain in the muscles and the joints, rashes and inflated lymph nodes. These symptoms tend to disappear within 2 to 3 weeks. Usually they do not get noticed or get connected with HIV, even by physicians.
- The next set of symptoms might appear after a few years and these are persistent. The symptoms include, but are not limited to fatigue, loss of body weight, inflated lymph nodes, fever, a sensation of numbness near the limbs, pain when you try to swallow, sores in the mouth and sweating at night.
The standard treatment of HIV/AIDS is ART (Antiretroviral Therapy) which is a combination of at least three drugs including, usually from two different classes of anti-retroviral (ARV) medicines.