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HIV/AIDS 101

What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which is a virus that attacks the immune system. This virus destroys mostly T-helper cells and other CD4+ white blood cells. Viruses cannot multiply outside the host cells, and most replicate infinitely inside the cell as soon as they enter until the cell is overwhelmed and bursts, at which point many virions are released. The life cycle of HIV is more complicated than that. It does not make copies of itself straight away but hides its genetic material in the genome, invisible to immune defenses of the infected human. That’s why many of those infected with the virus don’t experience any symptoms early on. Once HIV starts replicating, it destroys infected T-helper cells, and those living with HIV find it increasing difficult to fight infections and diseases. If left untreated, it may take the immune system 10 – 15 years to be incapable of defending itself. However, the speed HIV progresses will depend on age, heath, and background. (AVERT)

A scanning electron microscopic image of the structure of HIV.

 

How do you get HIV?
HIV is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. Activities that put you at risk for HIV are sexual contact (that involves semen, virginal fluids, or blood), direct blood contact (through sharing needles), infections due to blood transfusions, accidents in health care, and from mother to baby (during birth, or while breastfeeding). Unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal), as well as oral sex, are both ways to get HIV. Sexual intercourse is considered a high-risk activity, while oral sex is considered low risk – but not risk-free. Sharing injection needles or other materials used for injection is considered high-risk as there’s direct contact with blood. While mother to child transmission during pregnancy is rare in the U.S. and other high-income countries, it is still possible for the child to get HIV during breastfeeding. (San Francisco AIDS Foundation)

How can you get tested for HIV?
The only way to know if you have HIV is by getting tested. It is recommended to get tested for HIV regularly once you are sexually active. The information you get can help you take steps to keep you and your partner healthy. (CDC) You can ask your healthcare provider for your HIV test. Many medical clinics, substance abuse programs, community health care programs, and hospitals provide HIV tests. You can also buy a testing kit at the pharmacy or online. Health insurance covers HIV screening with a co-pay, and if you do not have health insurance, some testing sites may offer free tests. (CDC) If you take a test in a healthcare setting, a health care provider will take a sample of either your blood or oral fluid. It may take time to get the results back. If your test result is negative, and you haven’t been exposed in the last three months, you can be confident you’re HIV free. If you test positive, you may require follow-up tests to confirm your status. (CDC)

What is AIDS & how do you get AIDS?
If untreated, long-term HIV causes AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Many HIV-positive people do not have AIDS for many years, but as the CD4+ cell count drops, it slowly wears down your immune system. (AIDS InfoNet) AIDS onsets when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and thus, develop certain symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV and if left untreated will lead to death (AVERT). When the number of CD4+ cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, you are diagnosed with AIDS. You can also be diagnosed if you develop one or more opportunistic infections (or an infection caused by pathogens that take advantage of an opportunity not available, like a weakened immune system) regardless of how many CD4+ cells you have. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

What are treatments for HIV/AIDS?
Although there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, with the right treatment people with HIV can live long and healthy lives. It is detrimental that those with HIV take medication to deal with possible side effects of the disease. Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, is the highly recommended use of HIV medicines to treat HIV. People on ART take a combination of medication every day called HIV regimen. It is important that people start this treatment as soon as possible as it helps people with HIV live longer and healthier lives. ART also decreases the chance of transmission, but has the potential to cause side effects because of the interaction between the HIV medicines (or other drugs) the person is taking. Also, not taking the HIV medicine every day and exactly as prescribed can lead to drug resistance and treatment failure. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) There are many HIV medicines available; they are grouped into six drug classes according to the mechanism of action. A person’s initial HIV regimen usually contains three HIV medicines from two or more different drug classes. There variety of regimens to choose from are great since the needs of HIV patients vary due to many factors. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Edited by: Nelli Morgulchik, Ruby Halfacre, Arselyne Chery, and Shreya Singireddy

“HIV Treatment: The Basics | Understanding HIV/AIDS | AIDSinfo.” National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/education-materials/fact-sheets/21/51/hiv-treatment–the-basics>.
“How Is HIV / AIDS Transmitted?” San Francisco AIDS Foundation. San Francisco AIDS Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://sfaf.org/hiv-info/basics/how-is-hiv-transmitted.html>.
“Testing.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 06 Dec. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/testing.html>.
“What Are HIV and AIDS?” AVERT. AVERT, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://www.avert.org/about-hiv-aids/what-hiv-aids>.
“What Is AIDS?” What Is AIDS? | Aidsinfonet.org | The AIDS InfoNet. AIDSINFONET.ORG, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://www.aidsinfonet.org/fact_sheets/view/101>.