Join hands to fight AIDS
HIV/AIDS has emerged as one of the most staggering challenges of our times. According to estimates from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), 37 million adults and 2.5 million children will be living with HIV at the end of 2003. During 2003 around 5 million people were infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), approximately 3 million died due to AIDS.
However, as is becoming clearer through various public awareness programmes, prevention of HIV lies in our own hands and we can take that first step by being aware about by the disease and exposing myths and misconceptions that shroud it.
1st December is World AIDS Day… let’s take a pledge to fight this deadly disease.
What is AIDS?
AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a disease caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that damages the body’s immune (or defense) mechanism. As a result of this the body is no longer able to fight off certain infections and the affected person becomes prone to developing various diseases.
If a person gets infected with HIV, the body tries to fight off the infection by producing special molecules called antibodies. When the person gets a blood test done it is to find these antibodies. Presence of these antibodies in the blood confirms HIV infection and the person is termed “HIV Positive”.
However, being HIV positive is not the same as having AIDS. A person may be HIV positive and still not have any symptoms for years together. But as the HIV disease progresses it gradually damages the immune system. The hallmark of HIV infection is the progressive loss of a specific type of immune cell called T-helper or CD4 cells. As the virus grows, it damages or kills these and other cells, weakening the immune system and leaving the individual vulnerable to various opportunistic infections and other illnesses, ranging from pneumonia to cancer.
How does a person get AIDS?
A person can get AIDS in any of the following ways:
- Having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV.
- Sharing needles or drug injecting equipments with someone who is infected.
- Infection can be transferred from the mother to the baby. A pregnant woman infected with HIV can transfer it to her baby during pregnancy, during child birth or through breast feeding.
- Receiving infected blood, blood products or donated organs as part of medical treatment.
It is important to know that you cannot get HIV by:
- kissing, shaking hands, touching
- being in the proximity of an HIV positive person who is coughing or sneezing
- sharing food or toilet seats or from being in a swimming pool with an HIV infected person
- insect or animal bites
How do I know I am infected with HIV?
You cannot just depend upon symptoms to know whether you are infected, as the symptoms of AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other illnesses. Most people infected with HIV may not have any symptoms even after many years of infection. Hence, the only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection.
What is a HIV test?
An HIV test is a simple blood test, which looks for antibodies produced by the immune system in response to HIV that has entered the body. Remember though that it can take up to 3 months for these antibodies to show up in the body, so to get a reliable result you need to wait 3 months from the time when you think you may have been exposed to HIV. If antibodies to HIV are found, the test result will be ‘positive’ (i.e. the person is infected with the HIV).
There are 2 tests for detecting HIV antibodies. The HIV ELISA is a screening test used to diagnose HIV infection. If this test is positive (ie. HIV positive), it must be confirmed with a second test called the Western Blot which is a more specific test and will confirm if someone is truly HIV positive, as there are other conditions which may give a false positive ELISA screening test (e.g.. lupus, lyme disease, syphilis). When used together, the results from this two-part testing are greater than 99% accurate.
How can you prevent HIV infection?
You can prevent yourself from getting infected by practicing the following:
- Practice safer sex. Use condoms every time you have sex. When used properly and consistently, condoms are extremely effective.
- Avoid having sex with multiple partners.
- Do not share syringes or other injection equipment with anyone. If you wish to get any part of your body pierced or tattooed, get it done by some qualified professional who uses sterile equipments.
- Get a proper blood screening done before transfusion.
- Expecting mothers who are HIV positive can reduce the risk to the baby by taking anti-HIV medications and by bottle-feeding the baby instead of breast-feeding.
How is HIV/AIDS treated?
For many years, there was no effective treatment for AIDS. However, today there are drugs to treat HIV infection and AIDS. Some of these drugs help to treat opportunistic infections and illnesses that affect people with HIV/AIDS. On the other hand some help to prevent HIV itself from reproducing and destroying the body’s immune system. The drugs commonly in use are:
- Reverse transcriptase inhibitors
- Protease inhibitors
Nowadays patients are being given many of these drugs in combination. This is called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). When successful, such combinations can reduce the level of HIV in the blood to very low or even undetectable levels and sometimes enable the body’s CD4 cells (immune cells) to rebound to normal levels.
Researchers are also working towards developing new drugs known as fusion inhibitors and entry inhibitors that can prevent HIV from attaching to and infecting human immune cells.
So far there is no cure for AIDS. However, development of new drugs is helping some people with HIV/AIDS live longer, healthier lives.
Is there any vaccine for AIDS?
At present there is no vaccine for AIDS. Despite continued intensive research, experts believe it will be at least a decade before we have a safe, effective, and affordable AIDS vaccine