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HIV & AIDS

Last updated on Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overview

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, is a relatively "new" disease compared to other viral diseases such as polio, which have very much been a part of human history. Caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a retrovirus that is capable of infecting cells of the immune system, AIDS results from the weakening of the immune system to the point where it cannot protect the infected individual from tumors or pathogenic intruders. It can take years for an HIV infection to progress to AIDS.

HIV is thought to have mutated from the simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, that was transferred to humans who came in contact with infected primates in Africa. The mutation gave the virus the ability to infect and spread among humans and eventually to become the HIV as we recognized it in the 1980s. Today, around 1.1 million Americans are infected by HIV, and about 1 in 4 of all new infections in the US is among youth ages 13-24 years old. Even now, the virus infects people every day due to neglect of basic prevention practices and HIV testing. The CDC estimates about 60% of youth with HIV do not know they are infected. Although there is no cure for the disease, research in the area has improved the prognosis for those who are infected, and prevention is actively encouraged by many organizations.

Transmission and Prevention

It is very important to take the necessary preventative steps to avoid HIV infection. Some of the main routes of HIV infection are through body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk, since the virus cannot live outside of a liquid medium. To reduce risks, always practice safer sex and know the HIV status of your partner. If he or she is HIV-positive, antiretroviral therapy is available to lower the presence of the virus in body fluids, and thus the chance of infection can be lowered while still not eliminated.

The use of drugs is another cause of HIV spread. Needles containing blood can harbor the virus, which can be spread rapidly among individuals sharing the needles. HIV can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding. Some common methods to reduce the rate of transmission again involve the use of antiretroviral therapy and by delivery of the baby by Caesarean section.

The most effective method of preventing HIV is to avoid contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an HIV-positive person. Using a condom during a sexual intercourse, for example, is an effective prevention method.

For those who have been exposed to the virus, it is possible to undergo post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a set of medications that should be taken immediately if exposure is suspected. PEP is useful, but the antiretroviral drugs in PEP can have severe side effects. PEP is usually only used for for health care workers. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) may also be available for those who are at risk of being exposed.You are encouraged to talk to your health care providers about different options.

Diagnosis and Treatments

If you suspect that you have been exposed to the virus, there are many clinics and health organizations that offer free HIV testing. It is important to know your HIV status to take care of yourself and to prevent unknowingly infecting others. You are certainly encouraged to get tested even if you believe you are not exposed to HIV.

If you are indeed HIV-positive, living with HIV can be challenging, but prognosis is good if an individual takes care of his or her health. Maintain a regular schedule, adhere to the medications for HIV, stick to a healthy diet, exercise, get the necessary immunizations, and keep regular appointments with your health care providers. Discuss your sexual health with both your partner and doctor to determine safe practices. It is also important to take care of your mental health, as the prospect of the disease can carry a lot of stigma. Many HIV/AIDS crisis hotlines and support groups are available to provide emotional and psychological healing. With new advancements in medicine, many HIV positive patients can live a long life.

Tags: aidshivimmune systemimmunodeficiency

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