HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that causes profound immunodeficiency, or the weakening of the immune system. As such, it gradually renders the body defenseless against any forms of pathogen, including those that would not cause disease in healthy human beings. The virus destroys certain white blood cells that are responsible for immunity and protecting the body against disease. When the body no longer has enough of those white blood cells, an individual is said to have AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. HIV is the virus, while AIDS is the severe condition caused by the virus.
HIV is an infectious disease. It is spread through:
• Unprotected sex—this is the most common route. HIV is transmitted through sex when infected body fluid (semen, precum, vaginal secretions, or blood) manages to enter the body. This can happen through unprotected sex, either vaginal or anal, when infected fluid can enter through cuts, wounds, sores, or abrasions in the rectum, vagina, or penis; through the urethra; or the mucous membranes of the vagina.
• The presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can increase the risk of HIV infection during sex.
• Oral sex has very low risk of HIV transmission, but it is very much possible.
• Sharing needles, syringes, and other drug injection equipment.
• Mother-to-child or perinatal transmission—HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
• Receiving blood or organs (during blood donation or organ transplant) that is infected with HIV. This is very rare nowadays because of stringent requirements for blood and organ donors all over the world.
HIV is not transmitted through saliva (e.g., casual kissing), sweat, tears, insect bites (e.g., mosquitoes), the air, sharing utensils, using public toilets, shaking hands, and other forms of sexual activity that do not involve the exchange of body fluids into the body.
It is a misconception that HIV affects only men who have sex with men. Anyone regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation can be infected with HIV.
Early symptomatic infection usually manifests 3–6 weeks after exposure and resembles a normal viral infection. Symptoms include:
• Muscle pains, joint pains
• Sore throat
• Swollen lymph nodes
• Mouth ulcers
Most individuals recover spontaneously from these symptoms, so they do not suspect that they have an HIV infection. Some individuals may not manifest any symptoms at all.
It can take as long as 10 years before HIV has weakened the immune system enough to cause serious illness, and more severe symptoms start to manifest, including those from opportunistic infections, or bacteria, viruses, and fungi that would otherwise be harmless to healthy individuals. Thus, some individuals never suspect that they have been infected with HIV until they already have AIDS, especially if they were asymptomatic during the early phase.
There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, a combination of drugs known as anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can slow down and virtually halt the progression of HIV. Persons with HIV on ART have gone on to live long and otherwise healthy lives. People on ART should thus take their medication regularly according to their doctor's advice. With regular medication, persons with HIV can reach a point where the amount of virus in their blood becomes "undetectable"; at this stage, they are also considered "untransmissible," which means they can no longer infect other people with HIV.
Practice safe and protected sex as much as possible. This can mean sticking to one partner and/or knowing your partner's status at all times.
Individuals who are at high risk for HIV infection can opt to use pre-exposure prophylaxis upon doctor's advice. Pre-exposure prophylaxis is medicine that should be taken regularly and as prescribed in order to effectively prevent HIV infection.
Individuals who think they may have been exposed to HIV should immediately consult a doctor or health authority so they can be given medicine called post-exposure prophylaxis within 72 hours of potential exposure.
Sexually active individuals regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation should have themselves regularly tested for HIV. The minimum recommended interval is every 3 months, since HIV can take as long as 3 months before becoming detectable through HIV screening tests.
Avoid sharing needles and equipment in any scenario that involves injecting equipment.
Pregnant women with HIV should be on ART so they can avoid passing the virus on to their infants.