HIV and AIDS
Very commonly and incorrectly the terms HIV and AIDS are used interchangeably. As December is World AIDS month, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the meanings of the two terms and help ease understanding.
Historically, there was a lot of stigma attached to the term AIDS possibly due to the lack of education of the illness and the lack of treatment options available. Fortunately, as people are more aware of what and how HIV is caused, it has become accepted in our society. Although HIV cannot be treated, there are very successful treatment options available to patients to enable them to have a near-normal life span.
HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is a virus that affects the white blood cells of a human’s blood. White blood cells are found in our blood and they help fight against foreign bodies and infections, which keeps us free from infectious diseases. The human immunodeficiency virus uses these white blood cells to replicate, therefore multiplying and infecting the individual whilst destroying the white blood cell in the process. This leads the body defenceless against foreign bodies such as bacteria, parasites and other viruses. Consequently, the virus prevents the body's immune system from working properly, which increases the probability of the individual experiencing a range of other infections and health problems. These are known as ‘opportunistic infections’.
AIDS is the terminal stage of an HIV infection. The ill health that HIV can cause is related to immune deficiency. The virus attacks and weakens the immune system, which is the body’s natural defence system against infections and diseases. When the number of white blood cells are dangerously low in the terminal stages of the illness, they are said to have Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). AIDS in itself is not a disease, it is a syndrome. AIDS is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. While AIDS can't be transmitted from one person to another, the HIV virus can.
The HIV virus is found in bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal fluid, blood and breast milk. Consequently, you can contract the virus by having sexual intercourse without any barrier contraception such as condoms, sharing needles or if an infected mother breastfeeds her child. Fortunately, the virus cannot survive for very long outside of the body. It is also not known to be transmittable through saliva, sweat or urine.
It is not always easy to diagnose HIV as it doesn’t really have any symptoms. Once infected with HIV, the incubation period is three months. You may notice that you are getting ill more often due to the body’s lack of immune defence. The most reliable diagnosis is to get a HIV test. These are offered very commonly in a number of places such as sexual health clinics, GPs, private clinics and charity clinics.
If you suspect you may have been exposed to HIV, it is important to seek medical advice immediately as you may be able to get post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to stop you from becoming infected. It is also possible to get pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – this can help prevent you from becoming infected, if for example your partner is HIV positive.
For more information on HIV testing, PEP and PrEP, please contact our pharmacists.
Medicines used for the treatment of HIV infections are called anti-retroviral medications. Anti-retroviral medicines stop the virus from replicating in the body, allowing the body to repair its immune system. Often patients are treated with a combination of anti-retrovirals because the HIV virus can develop resistance very quickly, however, this does not mean taking 3 or four different tablets a day. HIV medication are formulated specially as combination medicines so a patient will normally take a tablet or two a day. It is, however, extremely important to take these medicines as prescribed every day. With treatment, the virus can become undetectable. To have an undetectable viral load means the level of HIV virus in the body is low enough to not be detected by a test. As a result, this reduces the risk of transmission significantly. Early diagnosis alongside treatment, annual flu jabs, healthy living and exercise will all contribute to a long and healthy life.
The best way to prevent HIV is to have protected sex i.e. use of a condom, never share needles or similar equipment such as syringes, swabs and spoons. It is uncommon for a mother to pass the infection onto the unborn child providing she receives timely HIV treatment and medical care.
For more information on HIV and AIDS, please visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/