For 33 years now, people all over the world have set apart one day each year to reflect on a global epidemic; a life-threatening condition known as AIDS. This disease, known in full as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). As of 2020 it had claimed the lives of over 36 million people and currently there are tens of millions living with HIV. It is for this reason that the 1st of December was designated World Aids Day to increase awareness and commemorate those affected by the disease.
In a bid to get a better understanding of the magnitude of this matter, we shall consider a few frequently asked questions;
Where did HIV/AIDS come from?
HIV infection came from a type of chimpanzees in Central Africa. The animal-version of the disease (SIV) spread to humans when they came into contact with infected blood as they hunted for meat.
How do I know if I have HIV?
The only way to be sure whether or not you have contracted the HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status helps to prevent unnecessary spread which in fact, saves lives. In those that test positive, it enables them to take therapeutic measures early resulting in longer and better quality lives.
Are there any signs and symptoms?
Yes there are.
A person who has contracted HIV would begin to experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, night sweats, fatigue and muscle aches. It is important to realize that these symptoms can occur with other diseases since this is the body’s default response to infection. Also note that the absence of symptoms does not exclude the possibility of having contracted HIV. If you experience any of these, you should see a healthcare professional for testing and advice.
Do the symptoms get worse with time?
Not always. This would mostly occur if one is not treated. The symptoms progressively get worse and this continuum is classified into three stages as follows;
Stage 1; Acute HIV infection
This is the first stage and people may or may not experience signs and symptoms. When they occur, they are the flu-like symptoms and at this stage the diagnosis can be made only by antigen/antibody tests. Interestingly, this is the most infectious stage of the disease.
Stage 2; Chronic HIV Infection
This is the asymptomatic stage where the affected people may not experience any signs/symptoms. The disease progresses at a slow rate and with medication it may in fact not progress from this stage. It can last for 10 years and more depending on the immunity and medication. However, in the background, the disease burden (viral load) increases and the body’s immunity declines making the subject susceptible to other infections and diseases. The disease can still be transmitted in this stage.
Stage 3; Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)
This is the most severe stage of the disease. It is short because the immunity is damaged and cannot withstand minor infections. This is also a highly infectious stage and the affected individuals could survive only for a few years without treatment.
How does one get infected with HIV?
The main way through which people get infected with HIV is unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal or oral) with infected people.
Other ways include;
- Contaminated blood transfusions
- Sharing needles with infected people
- Mother to child transmission during delivery and breastfeeding
HIV is not spread in some body fluids such as sweat and tears.
Is HIV curable?
Not yet. There has however been developed many drugs that help to keep the disease under control and improve the quality of life. For people at high risk of getting the disease, a treatment regimen known as Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP) is available. There is also another regimen known as Post-exposure prophylaxis which is taken following possible exposure to the virus to prevent progression to disease. Prevention however remains the best cure.
How can I prevent HIV?
Strategies that have been shown to have best results include,use of condoms every time you have sex, abstinence (not having sex) and avoiding sharing of needles. Thorough screening of blood products is done to reduce spread by blood transfusion. Antenatal care and education for mothers has improved outcomes in deliveries and breastfeeding particularly in HIV-positive mothers.
The theme for the World AIDS Day 2021 was End Inequalities; End AIDS. The emphasis was on the growing inequalities in accessing essential HIV services including antiretroviral therapy, screening and diagnostic tests, psychological counseling among others. The World Health Organization (WHO) called on global leaders and citizens to look out for people who are not able to access essential HIV services and rally for equality in accessibility. You and I have a role in this, and together we can end AIDS.