As human beings, we have seen HIV virus evolve in an unbelievably short span of time. For a disease that just appeared 4 decades ago, it has had a tremendously disturbing toll on our lives. Governments and health agencies have stretched their budgets to the fullest, and we are yet to find a cure for this hideous disease, which is exactly why prevention is the cure for HIV.
How the virus works
The virus enters our body through four primary routes:
- Unprotected sexual contact with an infected person. It is pretty common among homosexual males, occurring via the anal route, since the anal mucosa it highly susceptible to the virus.
- Intravenous drug abuse and sharing of needles (actually, drugs abusers have high-risk sexual behavior, and frequent exchange of needles among themselves, thus inoculating themselves directly with the virus).
- Via infected blood transfusion products.
- Via infected mother to the baby during pregnancy. The virus can cross the placenta and easily infect the baby.
- By accidental needle pricks. This is a mode common in health professionals while taking blood samples from patients or dealing with a bleeding patient or during operations.
The virus, after gaining entry, easily infects CD4+ cells, which are your body’s prime infection-fighting soldier. With that, our body becomes susceptible to all kind of infections, especially the ones we could have easily fought off with an intact immunity. HIV is an open invitation to all sorts of pathogens to attack a defenseless body.
In medical parlance, they say that the only symptom that HIV cannot produce is pregnancy. It simply translates to the fact that HIV can manifest as literally any symptom.
World Health Organisation has divided AIDS into various stages, depending upon its severity, and it is a pretty complex staging system. Roughly, we have the following:
Clinical Stage 1:
Mostly asymptomatic, but may show generalized lymphadenopathy sometimes (which is a pretty complex way of saying lumps at different places in the body).
Interestingly, if you get testing done in the days following infection (that is when you know that you might have acquired an infection) there are high chances that you may have a negative test result. The catch with HIV is that stays in Window Period for a few weeks, sometimes as long as 3 months. Window Period is basically that time when the body has not produced the markers of infection yet, although infection is very well present. Therefore, a re-testing after the window period should ALWAYS be done to rule out infection. Life, and HIV, always have ways of surprising us in nasty ways.
Clinical Stage 2:
It marks the beginning of troubles. A person infected and in the 2nd stage might start experiencing unexplained weight loss (thus proving, not all weight loss are tempting invitations of binge eating!). They might begin to get recurrent infections of the chest, runny nose, persistently nasty high temperatures, prolonged diarrheas that literally drain all fluids out and leave you dry like a prune. Skin lesions, especially herpes, is very common.
Clinical Stage 3:
This is the start of life-threatening infections.
Lesions such as white plaques on the tongue and oral mucosa and thrush make life utterly infernal. Also, pulmonary Tuberculosis is extremely common. In fact, TB is the major killer of people living with HIV, not just in India (where you totally expect it) but also worldwide. Bacterial causes of pneumonia and severe bacterial and fungal infections are a common occurrence.
Clinical Stage 4:
It is the final nail in the coffin.
HIV Wasting Syndrome, Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia (a pretty characteristic infection of the immunocompromised individuals) and the above-mentioned diseases, all in their most severe forms haunt the patient. Rare infections sprout all over the body of the patient, and cancers become common too, as the icing on the cake. There is no end of the issues that crop up in this final stage, all of which were pretty exotic (no pun intended) before HIV became a pandemic.
So, life is difficult for people living with HIV. We might not be seeing an effective cure in the near future, but it surely has a good treatment. A proper, standard therapy can lower the virus levels in the blood to undetectable levels, hence significantly decreasing morbidity and deferring mortality. In fact, a decent therapy (which, by the way, is lifelong, by virtue of the disease) can make an HIV patient lead an utterly normal life.
The most important facts about HIV are not the ones you have read above (yes, I am evil and like to waste the time of people in providing nitty-gritty details that might not have any relevance whatsoever in their life). Too late, since you already have stuffed your brain with that information.
Here is what you really need to know:
- HIV is a totally preventable disease, which is why medical institutions have a department called ‘Preventive and Social Medicine’ (which, by the way, is utterly useless! Kidding though!!).
- You should totally avoid the risk factors mentioned above, although you cannot help being born to an HIV positive mother, which is a sad thing. No one gets to choose their parent. Such is destiny.
- You should seek medical help if you have such drug addictions. Leaving the detestable habit of drug abuse is totally possible, given you want to do it. There are medicines to decrease craving; there are Rehabilitation Centers that are extremely supportive and help people lead better lives.
- You should immediately seek medical advice if you think you might have; exchanged body fluids with any HIV positive patient -blood; genital fluids (having unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who might have HIV) and needles for drug abuse. Preventing HIV is entirely possible is you take proper medication within 72 hours of infection.
- The government provides free testing, counseling, and drugs for HIV. Also, the results of tests are kept very confidential, and hence, no threats to your privacy arise.