Overview – What is it?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system of an individual making it weak to fight infections. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the most advance stage of HIV. It can take years to develop, depending on the individual. There is no cure for the virus. However, taking certain medications can help those infected to prolong their life and can help those not infected to prevent themselves being infected.
Symptoms for this disease take time to start. They include fever and red rash in the first stage and more aggressive symptoms in the last stage, including diarrhoea and shortness of breath. A blood test is used to determine whether a person is infected or not.
Practising safe sex is a major factor in preventing oneself from getting infected or infecting someone else with this virus.
People living with HIV can live normal, productive lives by eating healthy, taking medication and having a positive attitude towards life through accepting their condition.
Causes – What causes it?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system (White blood cells- CD4 cells), weakening the person’s immunity and therefore making them prone to infections. The virus is passed from one person to another in various ways, including:
- Sexual Transmission: Having sex with an infected person without protection is one of the major ways through which HIV is transmitted.
- Blood Transmission: Sharing sharp objects like needles or syringes. This may explain why HIV infections are higher among people who use hard drugs by injecting them into their bodies. Some drug users share needles with which they inject the drugs and so increase their risk of becoming infected with the virus.
- Medical practitioners have a high risk of contracting HIV, by for example being stuck with an infected needle or when treating an open wound, coming into contact with a patient’s blood that is infected with the HIV virus.
- Perinatal Transmission: A mother can transmit HIV to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. This is why it is important that all pregnant mothers get tested so that if they are infected, they can take the necessary
- precautions to prevent their babies from becoming infected with the virus.
- In rare cases, HIV can be transmitted through:
- Blood transfusion or organ/ tissue transplants where the blood, organ or tissue is infected with the virus. This type of transmission is now rare because there is better screening of blood, organ and tissue donors.
- Oral Sex: Transmission is possible if a man ejaculates in his partner’s mouth.
- Again, this is a rare form of transmission.
- Kissing: The risk of contracting HIV through kissing is very rare unless both partners have sores in the mouth or bleeding gums so that blood of an infected partner is able to enter the bloodstream of the partner who is HIV- negative.
However, the HIV virus cannot be transmitted through hugging, shaking hands, sharing cutlery, toilets and towels, through mosquito bites, or in the air.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
Unlike other diseases that show signs and symptoms almost immediately after infection, HIV takes a relatively long time before any signs or symptoms are experienced. These symptoms vary, depending on the stage of the virus.
The different HIV stages are:
- Acute HIV Infection: This is the first stage which can develop 2-4 weeks after a person is infected with the virus. The symptoms in this stage include:
- Red rash,
- Joint pain,
- Sweating especially during the night, and
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Chronic HIV Infection (Asymptomatic HIV Infection or Clinical Latency): The symptoms tend to disappear in this stage, but the virus continues to multiply at low levels, damaging the immune system and other body organs. This stage can take up to 10 years but can be kept at bay for longer if the person is taking medication to resist the virus.
- AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Virus): In this advanced stage of the virus, a person’s immune system is already severely damaged and is unable to fight infections. The person develops opportunistic infections that usually occur in people with low immunity. At this stage the symptoms are severe and include:
- Sweating especially at night,
- Blurred vision,
- Weight loss,
- Dry cough,
- Feeling tired all the time,
- Shortness of breath,
- White spots on the tongue, and
- Swollen glands.
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
The types of HIV tests include the following:
- Nucleic acids tests (NAT): This test checks for the presence of the virus in the blood. It is an expensive test which is mostly used to test people who have recently had a high risk of being exposed to the virus or have a possibility of being exposed and are already showing symptoms of the virus. The accuracy of this test can, however, be reduced by taking Pre-exposure or Post-exposure drugs. It is better, therefore, to have an antibody or antigen test done at the same time.
- Antigen/antibody test: This test is carried out in a lab and to check for HIV antibodies and antigens. Antigens are the substances that make the immune system active, while antibodies are substances that the immune system produces to fight bacteria or viruses. P24 antigen is produced when a person has the HIV virus in their body.
- Antibody tests: The different types of antibody tests include:
- Rapid antibody screening test- This test uses blood from a prick on the finger or oral fluid and takes 30 minutes or even less.
- Laboratory-based antibody screening: As the name suggests, this test is done in a lab using blood sample taken from the vein. It takes days before the results are available.
- Home collection kit: This test is done by an individual on their own by pricking a finger to obtain a blood sample and sending the sample to the lab, after which the tests results are sent to the person.
- Oral fluid self-test: A person swabs their mouth and uses a kit to do the test, the results of which are available in about 20 minutes.
- People who use antibody tests are generally advised to have more tests done to confirm the results. HIV testing can give people a scare. This is where counselling comes in. The 2 main types of counselling done to a person going through HIV testing are:
- Pre-test counselling that is done before a person has been tested for HIV. The counsellor tries to understand why the person wants to be tested, their personal history, whether the person has any health problems and their risk of infection, among other things.
- Post-test counselling that takes place after a person has been tested positive, so as to give the person the results, help them discuss their options and share their feelings on the results, as well as to give them positive information on the resources available to help them.
Ongoing HIV/AIDS counselling can also be done after a person has received the test. This counselling aims to help the person to manage the effect HIV has on them and those around them; help the person to be positive and help the person to understand the good and bad side of telling other people about their condition, among other things which might help the person cope with their condition.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
- Although there is no cure for HIV, there are medications – Antiretroviral Drugs (ARV) – that help in slowing down the rate at which the virus multiplies, thereby increasing the lifespan of an individual. These drugs have increased the lifespan of people living with HIV greatly, saving 13.1 million lives in 2016 alone. They do, however, have some side effects including diarrhoea, fatigue and nausea.
- Prophylaxis (PEP) is a post- exposure drug that is taken within 72 hours of exposure, for 4 weeks, by people who have been exposed to the HIV virus such as medical practitioners and victims of sexual assault.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
HIV may not have a cure yet, but it is preventable in most cases. Here are some ways you can prevent yourself from getting this deadly virus:
- Correct and consistent use of protection during sex; male or female condoms.
- Using antiretroviral drugs which reduce the risk of transmission by 96%.
- Using pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP) which helps in preventing a person from getting HIV if the partner is HIV positive.
- Use of post-exposure drugs (PEP) which prevents people who have been exposed to the virus from contracting the virus, for example, a person who has been sexually assaulted, or a nurse who has accidentally been pricked by a used needle while attending to a HIV-positive patient.
- Not sharing needles which exposes one to HIV and other viruses, such as Hepatitis B.
- Avoiding exposure to body fluids that may contain the virus, especially in the work environment by, for example, a medic wearing gloves.
- Creating awareness about the virus to help people protect themselves from contracting it.
- Getting tested regularly to know your status and to stay safe, and if you are already HIV positive, ensuring you protect others by not increasing their risk of getting infected by, for example, having unprotected sex.
Living and Management – How do you live with and Manage HIV?
- Acceptance is the first and most important step that will enable a person to live positively and manage this virus.
- Protect yourself from other infections such as sexually transmitted diseases, by ensuring that you practise safe sex.
- Visit a doctor regularly to ensure that your condition is monitored.
- Ensure that you maintain a healthy diet that will play a huge role in strengthening your immunity; for example, more fruits and vegetables.