AIDS is a killer disease, yet there are millions of people who are still unaware of its causes, symptoms and preventives. On World AIDS Day here is some relevant information for you.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
AIDS is a medical condition. A person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections.
Since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s, an unprecedented number of people have been affected by the global AIDS epidemic. Today, there are an estimated 33.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS and each year around two million people die from AIDS-related illnesses.
What causes AIDS?
AIDS is caused by HIV.
HIV is a virus that gradually attacks the immune system cells. As HIV progressively damages these cells, the body becomes more vulnerable to infections, which it will have difficulty in fighting off. It is at the point of very advanced HIV infection that a person is said to have AIDS. It can be years before HIV has damaged the immune system enough for AIDS to develop.
What are the symptoms of AIDS?
A person is diagnosed with AIDS when they have developed an AIDS-related condition or symptom, called an opportunistic infection or an AIDS-related cancer. The infections are called ‘opportunistic’ because they take advantage of the opportunity offered by a weakened immune system.
It is possible for someone to be diagnosed with AIDS even if they have not developed an opportunistic infection. AIDS can be diagnosed when the number of immune system cells (CD4 cells) in the blood of an HIV positive person drops below a certain level.
Is there a cure for AIDS?
Worryingly, many people think there is a ‘cure’ for AIDS which makes them feel safe, and perhaps take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t. However, there is still no cure for AIDS. The only way to stay safe is to be aware of how HIV is transmitted and how to prevent HIV infection.
How can HIV transmission be prevented?
HIV can be transmitted in three main ways:
- Sexual transmission
– Transmission through blood
– Mother-to-child transmission
For each route of transmission there are things that an individual can do to reduce or eliminate risk. There are also interventions that have been proven to work at the community, local and national level.
Wherever there is HIV, all three routes of transmission will take place. However the number of infections resulting from each route will vary greatly between countries and population groups. The share of resources allocated to each area should reflect the nature of the local epidemic – for example, if most infections occur among men who have sex with men then this group should be a primary target for prevention efforts.
Who needs HIV prevention?
Anyone can become infected with HIV, and so promoting widespread awareness of HIV through basic HIV and AIDS education is vital for preventing all forms of HIV transmission. Specific programmes can target key groups who have been particularly affected by a country’s epidemic, for example children, women, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers. Older people are also a group who require prevention measures, as in some countries an increasing number of new infections are occurring among those aged over 50.
HIV prevention needs to reach both people who are at risk of HIV infection and those who are already infected:
- People who do not have HIV need interventions that will enable them to protect themselves from becoming infected.
- People who are already living with HIV need knowledge and support to protect their own health and to ensure that they don’t transmit HIV to others – known as “positive prevention”. Positive prevention has become increasingly important as improvements in treatment have led to a rise in the number of people living with HIV.
How is AIDS treated?
Antiretroviral treatment can prolong the time between HIV infection and the onset of AIDS. Modern combination therapy is highly effective and someone with HIV who is taking treatment could live for the rest of their life without developing AIDS.
An AIDS diagnosis does not necessarily equate to a death sentence. Many people can still benefit from starting antiretroviral therapy even once they have developed an AIDS-defining illness. Better treatment and prevention for opportunistic infections have also helped to improve the quality and length of life for those diagnosed with AIDS.
Treating some opportunistic infections is easier than others. Infections such as herpes zoster and candidiasis of the mouth, throat or vagina, can be managed effectively in most environments. On the other hand, more complex infections such as toxoplasmosis, need advanced medical equipment and infrastructure, which are lacking in many resource-poor areas.
It is also important that treatment is provided for AIDS related pain, which is experienced by almost all people in the very advanced stages of HIV infection.
How many people have died from AIDS?
Since the first cases of AIDS were identified in 1981, more than 25 million people have died from AIDS. An estimated two million people died in 2008 alone.
Why do people still develop AIDS today?
Even though antiretroviral treatment can prevent the onset of AIDS in a person living with HIV, many people are still diagnosed with AIDS today. There are four main reasons for this:
- In many resource-poor countries antiretroviral treatment is not widely available. Even in wealthier countries, such as America, many individuals are not covered by health insurance and cannot afford treatment.
- Some people who became infected with HIV in the early years of the epidemic before combination therapy was available, have subsequently developed drug resistance and therefore have limited treatment options.
- Many people are never tested for HIV and only become aware they are infected with the virus once they have developed an AIDS-related illness. These people are at a higher risk of mortality, as they tend to respond less well to treatment at this stage.
- Sometimes people taking treatment are unable to adhere to, or tolerate the side effects of drugs.
Caring for a person with AIDS
In the later stages of AIDS, a person will need palliative care and emotional support. In many parts of the world, friends, family and AIDS organisations provide home based care. This is particularly the case in countries with high HIV prevalence and overstretched healthcare systems.
End of life care becomes necessary when a person has reached the very final stages of AIDS. At this stage, preparing for death and open discussion about whether a person is going to die often helps in addressing concerns and ensuring final wishes are followed.
Source: Times of India