Understanding HIV and Its Basic Prevention Methods

More than three decades into the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, many members of the general public remain in the dark about the nature of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), its distinction from acute immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), its causes, and the best ways to prevent the spread of the disease. In the meantime, the statistics on HIV/AIDS around the world show cause for concern. According to the latest data of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 36.9 million people are living with HIV, as many as 1.8 million people became newly infected in the year 2017 alone, and only about 21.7 million of HIV-positive people have access to antiretroviral therapy (ART).

It begs the question: how far are we from beating this deadly disease? Our odds have increased greatly since the introduction of ART medicines in the 1990s, greatly reducing the risk of HIV transmission and prolonging the good health of HIV-positive people. We’ve also benefited from the evolution of accurate HIV screening technology. Moreover, young and old advocates alike are willing to get tested, join HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, or wear a customized wristband to show solidarity. But as we await for a permanent cure, we still have a long way to go in closing the information gaps.  

Want to learn more about HIV and AIDS? Looking for ways to explain symptoms, treatment, and HIV/AIDS advocacy to a potential backer? Read on for everything you need to know.

A Primer on HIV Transmission, the Three Stages, and Treatment

What is HIV?

To begin, HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system through its CD4 cells, or the cells that actively participate in the body’s immunity response. Once the damage has been done to the body’s immune system, it becomes increasingly harder for the body to fight off serious infections and diseases.

HIV spreads through certain body fluids like blood, semen, and vaginal fluids from someone who is HIV-positive. Contrary to the old myth, HIV cannot be passed down through saliva. HIV transmission becomes possible when the infected body fluids come in contact with mucous membrane or damaged tissue, or if they are injected directly into the bloodstream with a needle or syringe. As such, the primary vehicles for HIV transmission are close sexual contact with someone who is HIV-positive and sharing of infected drug equipment.

The Three Stages of HIV

HIV progresses in three stages, namely:

  1. Acute HIV Infection Stage. The telltale symptoms of acute HIV infection mimic those of a severe flu. In this stage, the body experiences acute retroviral syndrome, which is a reaction to the entry of the virus. The virus uses the body’s CD4 cells to replicate itself and the host cells in the process.

    This first stage of progression is a crucial time to seek ART treatment. The sooner that one can take HIV medicines after diagnosis, the better it will be for their overall health. This is also the stage that HIV levels in the bloodstream are high, thus putting one’s sexual partners at risk of being infected as well. ART treatment will help HIV-positive people reduce this risk of transmission to their partners.

  2. Clinical Latency Stage. In the clinical latency stage, the HIV virus develops inside of a person without producing symptoms. It is possible for someone HIV-positive to remain in this stage for decades without the HIV evolving into AIDS, as long as the ART treatment is sustained. The treatment keeps the virus in check, and it also keeps transmission levels to others at a low level.  
  3. AIDS Stage. This is HIV’s final form, or the most severe stage of progression. At this stage, the victim’s CD4 cell can fall to a terribly low count that the body becomes extremely vulnerable to opportunistic infections. If ART treatment is administered to someone suffering from AIDS, their life expectancy is approximately three years. Without ART, they can have as little as one more year to live.

Several factors determine how quickly HIV-positive people progress from one stage to another. Some factors at play are their genetics, their general health before contracting HIV, and their previous medical history. No one with HIV should be judged harshly for their circumstances, and the quest to get treatment should begin immediately.

ART Treatment

As of this time, no cure exists for HIV/AIDS. The primary strategy for HIV intervention—as well as prevention—is the use of antiretroviral therapy.

ART medicines serve to reduce the viral load of HIV in the body to an undetectable level. This works twofold to mitigate the damage of HIV: those who take the medicines are more equipped to deal with threats to their immune system, and their would-be partners are less at risk of contracting it themselves.

Your Role in HIV Prevention

With this info at hand, it’s up to you to continue the hard work of the government, the healthcare sector, and the civil society groups in your locality. Help debunk the hearsay on HIV—and better yet, help destigmatize the disease for those who are currently suffering from it.

Your actions can begin from somewhere simple: an online campaign for safe sex practices, a visit to your health center to test HIV and other diseases, a show of support on your person for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, or a donation so that the less fortunate can access ARTs.   

Show that you understand HIV and are one with everyone in winning the fight against it!