Human Immunodefficiency Virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that targets vital cells of the immune system. As infection progresses and accelerates, afflicted patients lose their ability to fight off infections from pathogens that are not a problem for healthy immune systems. Once a patient’s immune system cell count reaches a critical level (CD4+ count of less than 200 per micro liter), the person is considered to have Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
How Does It Work?
HIV is a retrovirus that encodes itself into the host’s DNA shortly after infection, allowing it to lie dormant for variable periods of time. In some people, the virus becomes active soon after DNA integration, while in others it is can be undetectable for fifteen years or more. The median incubation period for HIV is about ten years, during which time the host may transmit the disease but shows no symptoms.
HIV is spread through the transfer of bodily fluids including:
• Semen and pre-ejaculate
• Vaginal fluids
• Breast milk
Although these bodily fluids do contain the virus, HIV is not spread through:
Additionally, insects who feed on human bodily fluids cannot transmit the disease from infected feedings to others (i.e. mosquitoes).
The primary means through which HIV spreads is through sexual intercourse and various sexual acts. Therefore, the most effective method of prevention is abstinence. For those sexually active, latex or polyethylene condoms used every time you have sex is the most effective prevention. Never reuse a condom.
Another possible venue of contraction is the sharing of hypodermic needles with an infected person. This can be easily prevented by ensuring any needle use for either a tattoo or intravenous drug administration is a brand new needle. The virus is rarely transmitted through blood transfusions due to contemporary methods of screening the blood.
Women who may become pregnant or are considering pregnancy should always seek testing and counseling if there is any risk of an HIV infection. Those who test positive may be advised to never breastfeed, and may also be given drugs to prevent infecting their baby.
There is currently no cure for AIDS and no vaccine for the HIV virus. The main method of treatment is the use of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), which can slow the activity of HIV and promote healthy immune system function. This is done through a “cocktail” of multiple antiretroviral agents. However, HAART will not cure the patient or remove all levels of HIV. Discontinuing use of the HAART regimen will lead to a rapid increase in HIV activity and decline in CD4+ cells.
There are many known side-effects to using such a potent combination of medicines including but not limited to:
• Increased risk of heart disease
• Kidney failure
• Dyslipidemia and lipodystrophy
• Insulin resistance
• Birth defects
Finally, the virus is constantly mutating and thus drug-resistance strains of the virus can form at alarming rates.
The majority of testing for HIV is done by private doctors in hospitals or health management facilities. Most of these testing areas keep their procedures confidential and some are completely anonymous, attaching only a number to the specimen for identification.
HIV is generally tested via observation of the immune system’s antibodies that are produced to ward off the virus. The window period for this test is approximately ninety days; if a person is tested within these three months immediately following infection, there is a significantly higher chance of a false negative test result. In other words, the test may come back negative when in fact the patient is infected. In rare cases, the participant may need six months before antibody levels are detectable.