What is AIDS? - Understanding the Epidemic

acquired immune deficiency syndrome

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It’s a major worldwide epidemic which has so far been identified in 200 countries.

In 2004 more than three million people worldwide died from AIDS. And since it was first recognized 20 years ago 21 million people have died. The majority of victims are in developing countries, such as Africa, where prevention programs and healthcare tend to be woefully inadequate.

So to answer "What is AIDS?" - AIDS is basically a collective term for a series of illnesses brought on by an immune system weakened by the HIV virus. There comes a time when the body can no longer cope with the number of infections being thrown at it and one of these illnesses which will eventually lead to a person’s death. But it is the HIV virus which is the root cause.

To sum it up, AIDS is the end stage of a relentless virus, which begins with no symptoms and gradually progresses to a condition with severe symptoms – the body’s destroyed immune system is just calling out for infections and cancers.

Being diagnosed as HIV positive doesn’t mean a person has AIDS. Thanks to medical advances and better medication it could be many years before the illness develops to that stage. Although in developing countries where nutrition and healthcare is poor the time between a diagnosis of HIV and death from AIDS can be very short.

What is AIDS? The Terminology and CD4+ Cells

These days AIDS is not a term generally used by doctors. Instead it is now being termed “late stage” or “advanced HIV infection.”

Generally speaking it means that the immune system of a person with HIV has been so badly damaged they have acquired an illness which would not normally be life threatening in someone with a healthy immune system. This illness may be in the form of an infection such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. Because of the HIV virus, which kills the important virus fighting CD4+ cells in the body, the immune system now no longer has the strength to ward off infections.

The point at which a person is declared to have AIDS differs from one country to another. In many western countries a CD4+ count of less than 200 shows that a person has a very badly damaged immune system and now has AIDS. Even if the count goes above 200 at a later date, that person is still regarded as having AIDS.

People with AIDS generally suffer from infections of the intestinal tract, brain, lungs and other organs. The condition is characterized by increasing weight loss and cancers such as Kaposi sarcoma – a form of skin cancer – and lymphomas which affect the lymph glands.

Pneumocystic pneumonia is an infection which is common in AIDS patients, but is rarely seen in other people.

Unfortunately, as yet, there is no cure for AIDS, although medication can successfully treat some AIDS related infections.


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