What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a disease that kills CD4 cells, which are a type of immune system called T cells. Presently HIV has no cure, but effective treatments allow people with HIV to live long lives and protect their partners from contracting the virus.
The first two to four weeks after contracting HIV, the body rapidly develops HIV antibodies to fight off the infection. This is called the acute infection stage.
Some people may not show any symptoms of infection at this initial stage. Others may show symptoms similar to the flu (often described as the worst flu ever), or other seasonal viruses and therefore do not consider that they may have contracted HIV.
Such early flu-like symptoms can include:
- Body aches and pains
- Skin rash
- Upset stomach
- Swollen Lymph nodes
- Sore throat
Like the onset of the flu, symptoms may be mild to severe, come and go, and persist for up to one week. The flu like symptoms are called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or primary HIV infection. However, not all newly infected patients develop ARS.
Regardless of the symptoms’ intensity, the HIV viral load during the first few weeks of infection is very high. The virus multiplies itself using the CD4 immune cells that the body produces to fight it, killing them (CD4) cells in the process.
After a month, when the person enters the chronic or clinical latency stage, the immune system can stabilize the viral load and, in the process, stabilize the CD4 count. At such a point, the disease enters the clinical latency stage, also called the asymptomatic HIV infection or the chronic HIV infection.
The virus at this latency stage is reproducing at a much lower rate and might be undetectable with a normal CD4 count, even without medication.
However, the stage can last for up to eight years, with some people going past it to full blown acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) much faster than others. The viral load may go up towards the middle or end of the latency stage, and the CD4 count may decline. Patients may begin to experience chronic fatigue and non-specific symptoms.
In the final stage of the disease, the person develops AIDS. For those who are diagnosed with HIV and get treatment early, they do not develop AIDS.
AIDS is when the CD4 count is low, and the immune system has suffered significant damage due to the disease, leaving the person vulnerable to opportunistic infections. People at this stage may live for up to three years without treatment.
HIV Treatment Options
The primary treatment of HIV is antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, which include a daily dose of medications to stop the virus from multiplying. The ARVs also protect the CD4 cells from being killed by the virus, thus strengthening the body’s natural defense mechanism to fight the virus.
ARVs keep HIV from progressing to AIDS and minimize the risk of transmitting the disease to others. If treatment is well administered, it reaches a point where the virus is undetectable. However, if a person stops taking medication, the virus may reappear and start undermining CD4 cells.
How to Prevent Transmission
Even though there is hope, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, you can prevent transmitting the virus through the following approaches:
- Treatment as Prevention (TaSP): HIV medication is taken as prescribed, and with regular check-ups, you can protect your sexual partner from contracting the virus. As long as your viral load stays undetectable, it cannot be transmitted to another person.
- Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP): If you suspect that you’ve been exposed to HIV in any possible way, you can take PEP within 72 hours of exposure. Your doctor will also give you a PEP prescription, which usually requires taking medication for another 28 days to reduce the risk of becoming infected.
- Protection during sex: Using a new condom every time you have anal or vaginal sex can prevent exposure to HIV. If you choose to use a lubricant, use a water-based lubricant instead of an oil-based one, which is known to weaken condoms and cause them to break.
- Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP): PrEP is a pill taken proactively every day, even without suspecting that you’ve been exposed to HIV. PrEP reduces the chances of infection by up to 90%. Before your doctor prescribes PrEP, you will need an HIV test conducted every three months as long as you’re on PrEP. Certain PrEP medications also need your doctor to monitor your kidney’s performance and carry out kidney tests every six months.
- Medication for HIV positive pregnant mothers: There are medications for expectant mothers to ensure they do not transmit the virus to their baby in the womb.
- Male circumcision: There is evidence to suggest that male circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection.