What is HIV? - Understanding the Human Immunodeficiency
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, has been recognized for more than two decades, with nearly 60 million people diagnosed with the illness during that time.
It is a huge pandemic spanning every continent of the world, and according to the World Health Organization, WHO, it’s the biggest threat that mankind has ever faced.
HIV belongs to a group of viruses called retroviruses which include viruses that cause leukemia in dogs, cats, humans, and certain viruses found in monkeys and sheep.
The majority of people infected with HIV don’t even know they have the virus initially. It takes a few weeks for the body to realize that it is being invaded and for the immune system to be attacked. In fact the symptoms are so vague you could put them down to the common cold or any other non specific viral infection.
The difference with HIV is that it doesn’t go away. The virus continues to attack the immune system and for a while the body’s own natural defenses will keep it under control and an infected person may feel completely well – even for many years.
The Virus in the Body
The virus mainly affects the T-cells, which are commonly referred to as CD4+ cells. These are the white blood cells that help the immune system kick in and fight the disease. Once inside the CD4+ cells HIV continues to produce millions of tiny viruses which will kill off the cell before seeking out another one. Eventually the number of CD4+ cells will die off and the immune system won’t be able to fight anymore. It is at this time a person may get the diagnosis of HIV and need anti HIV drugs to keep it under control.
Being diagnosed with HIV doesn’t mean a person has AIDS. Without drugs HIV will progress to AIDS within a decade – although that really depends on where you live. People in developing countries where diet and healthcare are poor progress to AIDS far quicker.
However, someone with the virus who takes anti HIV medication can have a very good quality of life and it may be many many years before the disease develops into AIDS.
Perversely, bearing in mind how destructive it is, HIV is regarded as a fragile virus. It can only survive in moist conditions, which is why it is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretion or breast milk. It cannot penetrate through unbroken skin – or condoms for that matter.
So many myths have been built up about how you contract HIV. You can’t catch it from hugging or shaking hands, or even a social kiss. Fears of picking up the disease from a swimming pool or toilet are also unfounded.
HIV can only be caught through unprotected sex, sharing dirty needles or via a transfusion from an infected person. An HIV positive woman can pass the disease to her children through pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.
Nowadays, around five million people a year worldwide contract HIV - and the figure is still climbing. About 95% of these cases are in the developing world, where poverty, poor healthcare and ignorance of prevention measures feed the spread of the disease.