- Although we take steps to avoid infection, HIV can infect anyone
- Once HIV enters the body, it destroys T cells, which are required to fight infections
- It is important to begin treatment as soon as one is HIV-positive
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, does not discriminate gender or race—anyone can get infected. While testing positive for HIV can be a devastating discovery, it is possible to live a normal life with HIV as long as one gets treatment.
What is HIV and how is it transmitted?
HIV is a virus that destroys the body's T cells, which are the cells that fight infections. The progressive destruction of T cells means that one's body has diminished immunity, and without treatment, the body's inability to fight infections results in full-blown AIDS.
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluid and breastmilk. The most common mode of transmission is through unprotected intercourse with an infected person.
Other modes include sharing needles and syringes with an infected person, passing it on to an unborn child if the mother is HIV-positive, passing it on to a baby through breast milk if the mother is HIV-positive, and having a blood transfusion or organ and tissue transplant with infected blood or organs, although this is rare.
HIV does NOT spread through mere physical contact with an infected person, such as handshake, kissing or hugging. It also does not spread through the air or water, sharing amenities, or mosquitoes.
Acute or initial symptoms can appear within a month of one being infected and include fever, swollen lymph glands and general aches and pains.
Chronic symptoms can last from a few years to a few decades and include swollen lymph nodes, recurrent fevers, fatigue, aches and pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, skin rashes and oral yeast infections. It is important to note that one can infect another even when symptoms are not apparent.
Regular testing in important if one experiences unexplained symptoms such as those mentioned above. Even if one tests negative, it is important to have a follow up test after three months for a more conclusive result.
Similarly, if one tests positive, it is important to have a follow up or confirmatory test as soon as possible to discount the possibility of a false-positive result.
The period between exposure to HIV and its detection in blood is known as the HIV window period. A HIV test during the window period is likely to turn out negative, but one can still infect others.
During the window period, one might benefit from pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which is a combination of HIV-approved drugs and can lower the risk of contracting or spreading HIV when taken consistently.
A sero-discordant couple is one where one partner has HIV and the other doesn’t. If you are this kind of couple, it is important for the HIV-positive partner to maintain an undetectable viral load, while the HIV-negative partner may consider PrEP.
HIV and AIDS connection
As already mentioned, untreated HIV leads to full-blown AIDS in the long term. The lower the CD4 cell count, the weaker the body's immune system. A normal adult CD4 count is 800 to 1,000 per cubic millimeter. A count below 200 is considered AIDS.
Treatment should begin as soon as one tests positive. The main treatment is antiretroviral therapy (ART), a combination of daily medications that stop the virus from reproducing. This helps protect CD4 cells, keeping the immune system strong enough to fight off disease.
ART helps keep HIV from progressing to AIDS. It also helps reduce the risk of transmission. Medication should be used in tandem with exercise, healthy diet and good sleep.
While there's no vaccine to prevent HIV infection, one can take conscious decisions to minimize risk of infection, including abstaining from intercourse, staying faithful to one partner and using condoms. In addition, never share needles or syringes.
Living with HIV
While individual experiences can vary, most people can live quality and normal lives with proper ARV treatment and a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a positive outlook to life is also important, as is support from family and friends.
To learn more, check out the video below.