Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) affects millions of people all over the world. Currently, over a million U.S. citizens live with AIDS. While advanced treatments and life science products have turned AIDS into a manageable chronic disease in the U.S., certain areas of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, still battle the disease and deal with countless fatalities. Let’s take a closer look at AIDS, HIV, transmission, and prevention.
AIDS and HIV
AIDS is technically not a disease in and of itself. It is a condition that develops after your body has been infected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV damages your immune system, preventing it from fighting off even the most common of germs, bacteria, and pathogens. Unlike other viral infections, your body cannot fight off HIV.
AIDS comes as one of the later stages of an HIV infection. In fact, a person can live with HIV for decades before they develop AIDS. AIDS is defined by a severely damaged immune system that has difficulty handling diseases and certain cancers.
What Happens in the Body
HIV is much like any other virus. It is a partial organism that must live within a host, and its entire existence is based upon reproduction and spreading from host to host.
Cell-based assays show that, when HIV enters the body, it seeks out and attacks T-helper cells, a type of white blood cell in the body and a significant part of the immune system. When the body is infected by a virus, bacteria, or pathogen, T4 cells jump into action. Through cell signaling, the body increases the production of T4 cells as a signal that there’s something bad in the body and that the immune system needs to do something to get rid of that bad something.
However, HIV attaches itself to the T4 cells, inserting its own genetic code into the white blood cells and transforming the T4 cells into biological factories that pump out new HIV. Eventually, the T4 cells burst and release new viruses into the blood stream, which target more T4 cells and continue the cycle.
In the process, HIV completely destroys the body’s ability to fend for itself against infections, at which point AIDS is developed.
Transmission and Prevention
HIV lives in bodily fluids but is found primarily in blood, sexual fluids, and breast milk. Contrary to paranoid superstitions, spit, sweat, and tears don’t have enough HIV to infect others.
HIV’s transmission varies, but the most common methods include:
- Sexual contact: If one partner has HIV, the virus can enter through microscopic tears and open sores.
- Pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding: As babies have constant contact with their mother’s bodily fluids, it’s very easy for them to inherit AIDS in utero and during childbirth. After birth, a baby can also get HIV from infected breast milk.
- Injection drug use: Sharing, reusing, or not properly disposing of needles can put people in contact with HIV-infected blood.
Recently, a baby born with HIV was cured thanks to a mix of drugs administered shortly after birth followed by a standard regimen of AIDS drugs. After 18 months, however, the mother took the child off medication. Worried that the virus had resurfaced, doctors tested the baby multiple times and found no signs of AIDS in the child’s system.
While research into this potential cure could save hundreds of thousands of children infected every year, there remains no set cure for AIDS or vaccine to prevent HIV. However, there are numerous ways you can protect yourself and others from infection:
- Get tested and use protection during sex.
- Avoid drugs not prescribed by your doctor.
- If you are pregnant, seek medical care immediately. Receiving treatment during pregnancy can cut your baby’s risk of having AIDS by up to two-thirds.