At Rainbow Health, our goal is to educate all Minnesotans about HIV and reduce the stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis. Everyone can and should take steps to know their status, to help stop the spread of HIV, and to eliminate HIV stigma. Common misconceptions and fears are huge roadblocks in the fight against this disease. Here are some basics of HIV, which is the virus that can cause AIDS.
What is HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that affects certain white blood cells—CD4 T cells—that manage human immune system responses. When these blood cells are damaged, it becomes difficult for people to fight off infections or diseases.
To further break HIV down:
- Human: The virus can only infect human beings. Although similar diseases exist in other animals, such as monkeys and cats, those viruses cannot infect humans nor can HIV infect other animals.
- Immunodeficiency: The virus creates a deficiency with the body’s immune system, causing it to fail to work properly.
- Virus: The organism is a virus that is incapable of reproducing by itself; it must use a human cell to reproduce.
What does AIDS stand for?
When HIV disease was first recognized in the early 1980s, it was called AIDS. Today, the term “HIV disease” is a more accurate description of the condition. AIDS is still used, however, in order to keep track of infections and as a description for advanced–stages of HIV disease. AIDS refers to individuals who have particular “AIDS-defining” conditions such as a very low CD4 white blood cell count or specific illnesses.
To further break AIDS down:
- Acquired: HIV is not a condition passed on genetically; a person has to become infected with it.
- Immune: The immune system’s ability to fight off viruses and bacteria becomes much less effective.
- Deficiency: The immune system fails to work properly.
- Syndrome: There are a wide range of diseases and infections a person may experience.
How does HIV cause illnesses?
HIV reproduces continuously in the body from the first day of infection. A person may experience severe flu-like symptoms during this initial stage of infection, which can last 2-4 weeks. A person’s immune system attacks HIV soon after infection, and at first, is able to clear a large amount of virus from the body every 24 hours. However, for each virus particle cleared, at least one new one is created. The body’s initial, vigorous anti-HIV response creates a temporary equilibrium between immune cells and the virus that may last for months or years.
After the initial infection, a person will typically show no outward signs of illness for a number of years. Over time, however, the virus gains the upper hand. The amount of HIV in the body (viral load) increases and the CD4 T cell count declines.
The immune system cannot work properly under constant attack from HIV. Eventually, the virus overwhelms the defenses of the immune system, which then can no longer ward off other illness-causing infections, some of which can be life threatening.
Thankfully, there are now many medications a person living with HIV can take to slow the progression of the disease. When taken as prescribed, these medications can keep a person’s health stable for a very long time. These medications can also reduce viral loads to an undectable level which eliminates the ability to pass on the virus to others through sexual contact.