HIV Basics

HIV Basics & Common Knowledge - Understand the Basics of HIV & AIDS

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Table of Contents

HIV Stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which is exactly how it sounds. This is a virus occurring in humans (which cannot be spread either to or from pets), which causes the human immune system to become deficient. In simpler terms, if left unchecked, HIV will destroy a person’s immune system.

HIV is a Retrovirus

Viruses do not have cells of their own, and always require a host cell for reproduction and survival. A retrovirus is a virus that is made of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and use an enzyme to re-make itself into DNA after it enters into a host cell. This new DNA integrates with the DNA of that host and replicates. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus invades the CD4 cells of the human body. The CD4 cells normally kill off viruses and bacteria that invade the body. However, once infected with HIV, the CD4 cells no longer defend the body from viruses and bacteria, and instead, become the new cells that generate more and more HIV (as the new host cells).

There are Three Stages of HIV Infection:

The first stage is the Acute HIV infection. This begins within 2-4 weeks after becoming infected and is characterized by flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, headaches and occasional rash. Here the CD4 cells are being destroyed at a rapid rate as the HIV is multiplying quickly. Because the immune system is weakening the virus spreads throughout the body quickly. This is the stage where the virus is easily transmitted because the viral count is very high. Anti-retroviral Therapy (ART) is very beneficial during this stage.

The second stage is chronic HIV infection. This stage is marked by the viral load starting to stabilize as the replication rate has slowed down significantly. Patients in this stage, do not have any HIV-related symptoms and my stay in this stage indefinitely. This stage is also called the Clinical latency or Asymptomatic HIV infection stage. ART therapy in this stage prevents helps to further prevent the transmission of the disease by maintaining an undetectable viral load, thus eliminating the risk.

The third and final stage of HIV infection is AIDS. The diagnosis of AIDS is given to a patient with a CD4 count of less than 200 cells/mm3 or with the presence of an opportunistic infection. Opportunistic infections are those that only are present is persons who do not have healthy immune systems. With little to no CD4 fighter cells left, the body’s immune system has nearly failed, and the patient is now vulnerable to these types of infections and infection-related cancers. During this stage, the viral load is high and transmission of the virus is very easy. Without treatment of any type, survival is less than 3 years in this stage.

HIV/AIDS Leads to Opportunistic Infections

Opportunistic infections are those that occur much more often in people with weakened immune systems. Once a patient suffering from HIV reaches a stage where their immune systems have been so weakened by the virus they can no longer work the way they were meant to, even minor infections that most people wouldn’t even know about can cause great damage.

Thankfully, opportunistic infections are much less common today than they were during the 80’s or 90’s. If you’ll take a look at our facts page, you’ll notice there are still many sufferers who are open to opportunistic infections because they aren’t aware of the disease they carry.

The development of an opportunistic infection is a sign HIV has progressed to the third and final stage, AIDS.

No Cure Exists for HIV, but Treatment is Excellent

As of yet no cure has been discovered for HIV. Once a patient becomes infected, they have the disease for life. That being said, there are some extremely effective treatments out there today, that though they can’t cure the disease, essentially render it harmless.

HIV patients are treated with something called ‘Antiretroviral Therapy’. When taken in combination, these drugs are very effective at preventing the growth and expansion of the HIV virus.

If taken properly, antiretroviral treatment can stop the HIV virus from infecting cells and making copies, allowing the body’s immune system to recover. If HIV can no longer copy itself, it can no longer do the damage it was meant to.

Scientists Think HIV Came from African Chimps

Scientists have identified a type of Central African chimp as the original carrier, and source, of the HIV virus. They believe the chimpanzee version, a 32,000 year old retrovirus called simian immunodeficiency virus, was probably transmitted to humans before mutating to become HIV back when the chimps were hunted for their meat.

Though it wasn’t discovered until the 1980’s, scientists firmly believe the virus has existed in the US since the mid to late 1970’s, and it could have jumped from chimps to humans back in the late 1800’s.

Getting Tested is the Only Way to Know For Sure if You Have HIV

Some patients might show flu-like symptoms during the first stage of infection (2-4 weeks), and could last a few days to several weeks after. Depending on the testing method used, people who are infected might even get false negative results due to the early window and lack of antibodies. Some people might not show any symptoms at all.

All the while, these people are very infectious, and can easily pass the virus on to others. Patients often don’t see any symptoms during the second stage of HIV, which can last 10 years or more. They can still easily pass on the virus and may not get tested because they don’t believe anything is wrong.

HIV is Spread via Bodily Fluids, and Only Bodily Fluids

HIV is only spread from certain bodily fluids and can only be spread from humans to other humans (not animals, such as pets). These fluids include blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

HIV can’t be spread from sweat, or skin to skin contact- such as holding hands. It is much harder to get outside of specific activities, such as unsafe sex or illegal drug use with non-sterile needles containing infected blood.

Medical Treatment is Making Impressive Advances

The AIDS virus was first discovered in 1983, although scientists called it by another name then- human T-cell lymphotropic virus-type III/lymphadenopathy-associated virus. Today, scientists believe humans could have carried this mysterious virus as far back as the late 1800’s. During the mid 80’s and early 90’s, treatment for HIV was becoming more mainstream, and went thru many adjustments. When patients contracted AIDS, they were often admitted to AIDS wards in hospitals for the sole purpose of end of life care.

In 1984, ‘AIDS Action’, a community based organization, was already meeting in Washington DC to protest what has quickly became a national epidemic. Thankfully, the worst days of the disease are long behind us. Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, there is no reason patients can live the same fulfilling life they had before the virus, as long as they seek treatment and adhere to it!

Today, with treatment so advanced, the largest contributor to the HIV virus is People who Don’t Know they Have it.

Additional Resources

National Institute of offers access to the latest, federally approved HIV/AIDS medical practice guidelines, HIV treatment and prevention clinical trials, and other research information.
Centers for Disease Control and CDC provides diverse resources related to HIV and AIDS.
U.S. Department of Health and Human U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a library of resources for HIV prevention and treatment.
Avertwww.avert.orgAvert is a global provider of information and education about HIV and AIDS.
amfARwww.amfar.orgamfAR is a nonprofit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and advocacy.


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