Before getting to what acquired immune deficiency syndromes (AIDS) are, one should be aware of what a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is. HIV is a virus that attacks cells in the immune system, which is our body’s natural defense against illness.
The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also referred to as CD4 cells. As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually weakens a person’s immune system. This means that for someone who has HIV, and isn’t taking antiretroviral treatment, they will find it harder and harder to fight off infections and diseases.
If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged that it can no longer defend itself at all. However, the rate at which HIV progresses varies depending on age, general health and background.
Where Does AIDS fit in the Picture?
AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is also called advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV. It is a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV. A person is said to have AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and they develop certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV. When the infection is very advanced, and left untreated, it will lead to death. However, it should be clear that not everyone with HIV develops AIDS.
HIV is most often spread through unprotected sex with an infected person. It may also spread by sharing drug needles or through contact with the blood of an infected person. Women can infect their babies during pregnancy or childbirth.
The first signs of HIV infection may be swollen glands and flu-like symptoms. These may come and go within two to four weeks. Severe symptoms may not appear until months or years later. A blood test can tell if you have HIV infection. Your health care provider can do the test.
Currently, there is no cure for HIV, but there are many medicines that fight HIV infection and lower the risk of infecting others. People who get early treatment can live with the disease for a long time. HIV treatment involves taking medicines that slows down the progression of the virus in your body. HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, and the combination of drugs used to treat it is called antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Living With HIV/AIDS
In addition to your HIV health care provider, your health care team may include other health care providers, allied health care professionals, and social service providers who are experts in taking care of people with HIV. Aside from your other general health tests, your health care provider will use blood tests to monitor your HIV infection. These test results will also help your health care provider decide whether he or she should make changes to your treatment.
Living with HIV/AIDS also means that one has to live with the stigma or discrimination people have of those with the disease. HIV-related stigma refer to negative beliefs, feelings, and attitudes towards people living with HIV. People jump to conclusions and think that those with HIV are: gay or bisexual men, homeless people, street youth, or even mentally ill people.
On the other hand, HIV discrimination refers to the unfair and unjust treatment of someone based on their real or perceived HIV status. Discrimination may also affect family and friends, and those who care for people with HIV. HIV discrimination is often fueled by myths of casual transmission of HIV and pre-existing biases against certain groups, sexual behaviors, and drug use. This kind of discrimination can be institutionalized through laws, policies, and practices.
To battle this, one must know your rights. You are entitled to the same rights as any other patient in the medical system. These rights include safety, competent medical care, and confidentiality.