The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is causally linked to the dreaded acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS was first detected in the United States in 1981. At the beginning, the disease appeared to affect only gay men, and the disease was initially named gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). Only later did physicians and scientists realise that the disease also affected heterosexual people equally, and a new name was given to the disease: AIDS. Current evidence strongly suggest that HIV originated from a virus residing in primates (chimpanzees and monkeys) living in Africa. The transmission of the virus from primates to humans is likely to have occurred when these animals were hunted for meat, leading human hunters to be exposed to infected blood.
Fast forward more than 20 years later, HIV continues to be a source of major medical concern worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 35 million people have died from HIV infection. At the end of 2016, another 1.8 million people were estimated to be newly infected with HIV. The number of infections and the global scale involved mean that HIV is taking place on a pandemic scale.
What is HIV?
HIV is named for the nature of its attack on the human body. It infects several groups of cells that make up part of the body’s immune system, in particular CD4 T helper cells. CD4 is the name of a protein that is present on the cell surface of this group of T cells. These cells are especially important for the body’s adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system is what enables our bodies to fight off infections from microbes that we have encountered before (immunological memory). This is also the underlying mechanism that enables vaccines to work. In addition to these functions, the adaptive immune system is involved in removing cells that are becoming cancerous. Therefore, the gradual destruction of the body’s adaptive immune system by HIV dramatically increases the risk of infection by microorganisms – even those that normally pose no threat to healthy people (opportunistic infections) – as well as the risk of developing cancer. These effects normally manifest during the advanced stage of HIV infection, or AIDS.
HIV is transmitted through exchange of body fluids, which can take place during sexual intercourse, blood (for example, through transfusions or shared needles), during pregnancy and through breast milk. It cannot, however, be transmitted through ordinary day-to-day contact such as hugging, sharing of personal objects (e.g. clothing), food or water.
Stages of HIV infection
HIV infection progresses in several stages: acute infection, clinical latency, and AIDS. Acute infection, usually takes place within 2 – 4 weeks after infection. Symptoms of acute infection resemble those of influenza. Because of the window period between infection and appearance of symptoms, as well as the close resemblance of symptoms to those of influenza, many individuals do not realise they are infected with HIV. Some infected individuals may not even develop symptoms of acute infection.
After acute infection, the disease progresses to the stage of clinical latency. This stage, as the name suggests, is asymptomatic, but the infected person still harbours the disease and remains contagious. This stage can last for a few years to decades.
If the person remains untreated, AIDS follows the stage of clinical latency. During this stage, the person may show symptoms such as diarrhoea, unexplained weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, and night sweats. Opportunistic infections and certain cancers – such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, Burkitt’s lymphoma, and cervical cancer – are also commonly observed in people with AIDS.
HIV prevention and treatment
HIV infection can be prevented through abstinence and safe needle use. For expectant or new mothers who are infected, starting antiviral therapy early in pregnancy and bottlefeeding infants instead of breastfeeding will also help to prevent transmission from mother to child. No cure for HIV exists yet, but modern antiviral therapy has greatly improved the survival and quality of life for HIV-infected people. However, early detection and treatment is crucial for a positive outcome.
HIV can remain dormant in an infected person for many years. As a result, many people do not realise that they are infected, and are therefore at risk of remaining untreated, enabling the disease to progress unchecked. They are also likely to transmit the disease to others. If you suspect you have been infected with HIV, you should come forward for testing immediately even if you feel well.
Detecting HIV infection is quick and easy using our STD Rapid Test Kit, which uses the same method of detection as that of hospital laboratories worldwide. The kit requires only 1 – 2 drops of blood from a finger prick and gives you with a reliable and accurate result in 15 minutes. It is safe and easy to use.