Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a pandemic that killed an estimates 2.1 million people in 2007 alone. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 33.2 people worldwide live with the disease, three-quarters of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is a set of symptoms and infections that are a result from the damage to the central immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV. Upon contraction, the virus gradually weakens the immune response system of the body, leaving individuals susceptible to infections, tumors, and mild viruses. Indeed, most victims of HIV/AIDS do not die because of the virus itself, but from the attack of extraneous infections that the body can no longer defend itself against. Many patients with AIDS die from the common cold.
However many of those who are HIV-positive do not have AIDS or will not develop it for many years. Millions of people live with HIV, all of whom are at risk for developing AIDS at a later point in their lives and all of whom can still transmit the virus to healthy people. HIV disease becomes AIDS when one's immune system is seriously damaged. "Having less than 200 CD4 cells or a CD4 percentage that is less than 14% is a sign that one officially has AIDS,"(The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource, n.d.). AIDS is always a threat to those who are HIV-positive and it is crucial that once HIV is detected, medical help is sought to keep the risk of AIDS at bay.
It is not possible to reliably detect HIV based on symptoms alone and people living with HIV may "feel and look completely well but their immune systems may nevertheless be dam-aged,"(Whiteside, 2008). For this reason, blood testing is stressed and it is recommended that those who practice high-risk behavior such as sexual promiscuity or intravenous drug use be tested frequently. Some people who become infected with HIV do not notice any immediate change in their health. In this stage they are still able to pass on the virus without knowing that they themselves have it. However, "some suffer from a brief flu-like illness within a few weeks of becoming infected, or develop a rash or swollen glands,"(Gallant, 2007). These symptoms do not indicate the development of AIDS, and they usually disappear within a few days or weeks. After the first initial flu-like symptoms of HIV, "some people with HIV can live healthily for 10 years or longer,"(Grodeck, 2007).
Because there are little specific symptoms to HIV, being tested is important. There are three different tests for HIV, all of which require blood to be drawn. Most people develop "de-tectable HIV antibodies within 6 to 12 weeks of infection"(The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource, n.d.) and testing for the virus in the first three months can be unreliable. Being tested "earlier than 3 months may result in an unclear test result"(HIV & AIDS statistics from around the world, 2008), because an infected person may not yet have developed antibodies to HIV. The window period is this "time between infection and the development of antibodies,"(Whiteside, 2008). During the window period "people infected with HIV will not yet have antibodies in their blood that can be detected by an HIV test...however, the person may already have high levels of HIV in their blood, sexual fluids or breast milk,"(The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource, n.d.).
HIV is "a virus that is found in blood and other body fluids such as semen and vaginal fluids,"(Gallant, 2007). It cannot survive for long periods of time outside the body, so "to be in-fected with HIV one needs to allow some body fluid from an infected person to get inside the body,"(Grodeck, 2007). The most common ways that people become infected with HIV are "having sexual intercourse with an infected partner"(Whiteside, 2008) and by "injecting drugs using a needle or syringe that has been used by someone who is infected,"(Whiteside, 2008). HIV can be passed on in many seemingly normal activities such as "vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, injecting drugs, blood transfusions, blood products, mother-to-child transmissions, infection in the health-care setting, and from tattoos or piercing,"(Grodeck, 2007). It is not caused by sim-ply kissing, sharing utensils or glasses for drinking, insect bites, sneezing or coughing. Direct exchange of bodily fluids needs to take place for one to become infected with AIDS.
How to Protect
There is no cure for AIDS and although there are drugs that can slow down the HIV virus and slow down the damage to your immune system, there is no way to "clear" HIV from the body. Protecting oneself from transmission is the most important thing one can do. Using condoms when having sex is important and can keep HIV from being spread. Not sharing needles with another person for any reason and refraining from other high-risk behaviors also protects one from contracting HIV.
One of the key ways one can protect themselves is to educate themselves on the risks of AIDS and the ways in which it can and can not be transmitted. Practicing safe sex and limiting risky behavior can greatly reduce the chance of one contracting HIV. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and well-rounded diet can help those who are HIV-positive from developing into AIDS.
HIV/AIDS has been around for more than twenty years, killing millions every year and infecting even more. Because it is such a complex disease and directly attacks one immune system, there is no cure and AIDS will most likely be around for a long time. A worldwide pandemic, it no longer claims only those who are homosexual, African-American or illegal drug users--many people who never thought they would contract AIDS now live with the disease. Knowing how to prevent transmission and educating oneself properly about the myths and truths of the virus can go a long way in preventing many more from becoming infected.
Gallant, J. (2007). 100 Q&A About AIDS and HIV (100 Questions & Answers about . . .). Sud-bury: Jones And Bartlett Publishers, Inc..
Grodeck, B. (2007). The First Year: HIV: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed (First Year, The). U.S.: Marlowe & Company.
HIV & AIDS statistics from around the world. (2008, June 3). Retrieved June 8, 2008, from http://www.avert.org/statindx.htm.
The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2008, from http://www.thebody.com/.
Whiteside, A. (2008). HIV/AIDS: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford University Press, USA.