Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
There are an estimated 1.7 million Americans living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and nearly 1 in 7 of them are completely unaware of their status as a carrier. HIV weakens the body’s immune system by infection and destroying CDA 4 cells (T cells). It is spread through certain bodily fluids and is known to severely weaken the immune system of the infected person, leaving the patient unable to fight off other infections or diseases. This virus can eventually lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) which is the most severe form of the HIV virus.
There are unfortunately many myths surrounding the transmission of HIV due to years of unfortunately misinformation. HIV is transmitted primarily through sexual activities and needle or syringe use from infected people. Certain body fluids can transmit the HIV virus and those include blood, semen, rectal fluid, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. These infected fluids must come into contact with a mucous membrane, damaged tissue, or be directly inserted into the bloodstream (ex: IV drug use) in order for the virus to be spread.
The most common modes of transmission are:
HIV advances in stages, where three are considered having very different symptoms and treatment options. No stage of HIV or AIDS is curable but there are treatment options.
Acute HIV Infection is the nearly immediate response of the infection. In about 2 weeks to one month after becoming infected many patients experience terrible flu-like symptoms including swollen glands, rash, muscle and joint aches, and sore throat. These symptoms are the human body’s response to the infection and are often referred to as “primary HIV infection” or “acute retroviral syndrome (ARS).”
During this stage the body undergoes many changes at a cellular level. The virus produces a large amount of itself within the body by using CD4 cells to replicate. In the process of replicating the virus, a patient’s CD4 cells are completely destroyed, leaving a very low level of them. This is the optimum time to begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) to help your body maintain a stable level of the virus.
The Acute HIV Infection Stage 1 of HIV patients are at higher risk of transmitting HIV to others because the level of virus is so high in the blood.
Clinical Latency Stage occurs after the acute stage and refers to a state where the virus is still alive and active in a patient but the patient is not experiencing symptoms. If a patient is taking ART during this stage of HIV they can presumably lie for decades without the virus progressing to AIDS. This is because the virus at that point is reproducing slowly and the level of virus is lower or even undetectable. This doesn’t mean that the patient cannot transmit the virus to others during this stage, though.
Eventually, the clinical latency stage may end due to the disease progressing or the viral load increasing and can cause a flare up in symptoms.
AIDS is the final stage of HIV where the infection has done so much damage to the patient’s immune system that opportunistic infections are a serious threat. An opportunistic infection is an infection that is caused by different sources that would normally not pose a threat, but due to the patient’s compromised immune system, they do become a serious threat. With no medical treatment or therapy, patients in stage 3 are expected to live about 3 years. Beyond this, if an opportunistic infection occurs, a patient’s life-expectancy is about 1 year.
Preventing HIV transmission can be done by avoiding behaviors that are known to pose the risk of spreading the virus to others. Don’t have unprotected sexual encounters and activities, don’t share needles or other sharp objects that are injected, practice universal precautions for maintaining health and safety, and protect yourself from any possible sources of transmission.
Optional Resources for Further Study
- Activities Combating HIV Stigma and Discrimination by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and supported by the Secretary’s Minority AIDS Initiative Fund (SMAIF)
- HIV/Aids in Childcare by Nationwide Children’s Hospital
- Prevent and protect: Linking the HIV and child protection response to keep children safe, healthy & resilient by UNICEF