When many of us think of the word plague, thoughts of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague come to mind. However, beginning in the 1980s, the world awoke to the realization that a new plague was harming and even killing humans. We eventually gave the disease the name HIV/AIDS.
In this article, we shall explore together the definition of HIV/AIDS, what regions of the world are hardest hit by it, its causes, and how it is spread plus ways you can safeguard yourself and your family.
How is the HIV/AIDS Infection Transmitted?
- Pre-Seminal Fluids
- Rectal Fluids
- Vaginal Fluids
- Breast Milk
Transmission of HIV is only possible if these body fluids contact a mucous membrane such as those found inside the rectum, vagina, the opening of the penis and in the mouth. It can also be transmitted when infected body fluids contact damaged skin or other tissue.
The virus spreads through having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent transmission. Also, people who inject drugs and share needles with someone are at high risk of infection by HIV.
Women who are HIV positive can infect their baby during her pregnancy, during childbirth or through women breastfeeding their children.
Unfortunately, in the past people were infected by HIV after receiving blood transfusions or organ transplants by an HIV-positive donor. However, the risk is now very low thanks to careful testing of donated blood and tissue.
One cannot get HIV from casual contact with an HIV-positive person through a handshake, hug or a closed-mouth kiss. You also will not catch HIV from contact with objects such as toilet seats, doorknobs or dishes used by someone who is HIV positive.
HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus, a virus that may turn into AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome if left untreated.
There currently is no cure for HIV/AIDS. Once a person becomes infected the virus cannot be eliminated by the human body so you will have it for life. There is also no vaccine to prevent HIV.
The Detection of the HIV/AIDS Virus
In 1999, an international team of researchers discovered the origins of HIV-1. During this time, HIV-1 was the dominant strain of the virus in the developed world.
The researchers had identified a subspecies of chimpanzees living in the western equatorial African region that were infected with a virus called immunodeficiency virus (SIV).
At first, scientists felt a glimmer of hope in finding a cure for HIV because they thought infected chimpanzees had immunity that allowed them not to develop AIDS. However, subsequent research showed that while some wild monkey populations have developed the ability to control SIV in their bodies and not become ill, this is not true for chimpanzees.
Transmission of the simian immunodeficiency virus to humans occurred when people living in Africa hunted chimpanzees for food. Upon contact with the blood of their quarry, the hunters became infected and the virus mutated within their bodies into HIV.
The earliest case of HIV in a human was recorded in a person living in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. Later genetic testing of the HIV virus found he was infected from a single HIV virus strain sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
The Stages of Infection: From HIV to AIDS
The way the HIV virus works is that it attacks the body’s immune systems T cells that make our bodies fight infection. An HIV infection is said to have three stages, acute infection, clinical latency and AIDS.
Stage One, Acute Infection. In this stage, most people develop flu-like symptoms that many describe as “the worst flu ever.” This is called “acute retroviral syndrome (ARS)” and is the body’s response to HIV infecting the body. The symptoms of the initial infection by HIV appear within two to four weeks after infection, but some people do not experience these signs.
The symptoms of ARS include:
- Swollen glands
- A sore throat
- Muscle and joint aches
- A headache
Vital information to remember is that if the infected person realizes they may have been infected recently, it is critical to seek medical attention right away. By starting treatment right away during stage I, the outlook for the future health of the person is much better.
Stage Two, Clinical Latency. After the acute stage, the HIV infection moves on to stage two called clinical latency where the infected person experiences no symptoms. However, the HIV virus is still living and developing inside the person’s body.
Because the virus is reproducing at low levels, in this stage of the infection the virus cannot be detected in standard laboratory tests.
Without treatment, people reaching this stage of an HIV infection will progress quickly to become AIDS. However, with treatment, a person can live for decades without developing and perhaps never developing AIDS.
Unfortunately, it is during this stage with no symptoms people are likely to transmit the HIV virus to others. However, with treatment, there is a very low incidence of transmission due to the suppressed viral load.
Stage Three, AIDS. In this stage of an HIV infection, the body’s immune system has been severely damaged, so the infected person becomes vulnerable to opportunistic infections. Blood work will tell if the person is in full-blown AIDS. With it, a doctor can measure the number of immunity cells (called CD4 cells) to see if the blood of the infected person has a level of fewer than two-hundred cells per cubic millimeter of blood.
People can also receive a diagnosis of AIDS if they develop one or more of the opportunistic illnesses regardless of what bloodwork shows.
These opportunistic illnesses include but are not limited to the following:
- Hepatitis B and C
- Cancer of the cervix
- Cancer of the rectum
- Associated Neurocognitive Disorders (HAND)
- Cryptococcal Meningitis
- PCP (a type of pneumonia)
- Oesophageal Candidiasis
- Kaposi’s Sarcoma
There are medications available to help people living with HIV prevent these types of infections, but the best way to avoid these killer opportunistic infections is to be on an antiretroviral treatment regimen.
Without treatment, people in stage three AIDS will only survive about three years. However, if someone in stage three AIDS develops a dangerous opportunistic illness, the lifespan drops to around one year.
People who are infected with the HIV virus progress at different rates through the various stages. This is because people vary in a variety of factors including their health condition before infection and the genetic characteristics of the HIV virus that infected them.
The AIDS Virus in the United States
In the years between 1979-1981 rare types of pneumonia and cancers were noted by doctors in Los Angeles and New York among male patients who had sex with male partners. They also noted that their patients who had formed these diseases did not have healthy immune systems.
In 1980-81 the first official scientific documentation of AIDS was given the unfortunate name by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States of gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). Soon the media picked up on the story and renamed it the name gay cancer or the gay.
Unfortunately, this name given by the CDC and the media caused the public to stigmatize people in the gay community even more than they had been, with some religious people declaring it a disease sent from God as punishment.
In 1982, GRID was renamed acquired immunodeficiency syndrome to reflect better the growing evidence that it was not just the gay population who were affected, but also other communities as well.
By the end of 1982, the populations who had been identified as having been infected with AIDS included injection drug users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs.
The latter group raised the alarm because hemophiliacs were often given blood transfusions to fight their disease.
Was the blood supply used to treat them tainted with the HIV/AIDS virus?
At the end of 1983, a stunning number of gay men had died from AIDS leaving the gay community terrified and treated horribly by the public. Shunned and demonized, the story of the bravery and suffering of infected men caused the gay community to become closer and more compassionate than ever before.
Then both the gay and religious citizens of the United States were rocked when in December 1984 a young man by the name of Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. Ryan was only thirteen years old and had acquired AIDS through a blood transfusion.
Although Ryan was not contagious, parents of other students at the school he attended insisted he not be allowed to attend there any longer. His mother Jeanne White Ginder decided to fight for his right to attend school and her dedication to her son’s education gained international attention.
Ryan White’s life ended in when he was only eighteen years old, but his legacy continues. The United States was forced to face the reality that blaming the gay community for the disease and shunning them would not protect them from a virus so easily spread from human to human.
That isn’t to say that discrimination and blaming of the gay community for the AIDS epidemic isn’t still present. What it does mean that consciousness people in the U.S. understand that AIDS is a human virus, not a gay one restricted only to destroying the lives of young men in love.
AIDS/HIV in Other Regions of the Earth
According to a report from UNAIDS, “a group that is leading the effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030,” in 2017, 36.9 million people were living with HIV around the world.
The organization also reports that 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV and 940,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses in that same year.
The region hardest hit is South Africa with 10% of the population living with HIV/AIDS. Eswatini (Swaziland), Botswana and Lesotho have a presence of HIV/AIDS in 20% of the people with six other countries in the region reporting of at least 10%.
Outside of the continent of Africa, the Bahamas has the highest prevalence of 3.3%.
Further stats about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS on globe state that in Nigeria (3.2 million) and (India 2.1 million) people had the highest number of cases at the end of 2016.
How to Prevent HIV/AIDS from Devastating Your Family
While abstinence from all sexual activity, including oral and anal sex, is the only 100% way to prevent becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. Abstinence is also the only 100% way not to transmit HIV/AIDS to others.
However, since most humans will not live a life of abstinence, there are ways to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. These methods include using condoms and medications that can prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Condoms. The use of a condom during sex is highly effective for preventing the transmission of HIV. Condoms create a physical barrier that does not allow HIV to pass through from infected semen or blood. However, condoms are only useful if they are used correctly.
There are two types of condoms available to prevent HIV transmission, external condoms, and international condoms.
External Condoms. Also known as a male condom, it is a sheath manufactured from polyurethane, latex or polyisoprene worn over the penis during intercourse.
Internal Condoms. Also known as a female condom, it consists of a pouch made from polyurethane or nitrile. Internal condoms are designed for vaginal sex but also is used during anal sex. The ring at the closed end is inserted into the vagina or anus to hold the condom in place.
Condoms made from a thin membrane like sheep intestine, known as lambskin condoms, DO allow the HIV/AIDS virus to pass through and should never be used to prevent the disease.
Medications. There are medicines called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) that can help prevent transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. This medication, when taken every day, can prevent the transmission of the HIV infection for people who already have the disease or who are in a monogamous relationship with a partner who is infected.
This is especially true if you are gay or bisexual, a heterosexual man or woman who does not regularly use condoms with high-risk partners such as people who inject drugs.
Post-Exposure Prophylaxis. These medications are for people who are HIV negative and don’t know the HIV status of someone you have recently had sex with and the condom broke.
If the condom does break during sexual contact with someone you are unsure of, it is vital that you make an emergency room visit to begin taking post-exposure prophylaxis medication immediately.
One important point to keep in mind is that if your partner is taking medications to treat HIV as prescribed and his or her viral load is undetectable are far less likely to pass the infection to you.
However, the use of a condom or one of the drugs mentioned above will ensure that both of you remain healthy and live long together.
The High Cost of Treatment
While lifesaving drugs were developed in 1987 in the United States, many countries in the poorer developing world didn’t gain access to them until the early 2000s.
The biggest reason for the delay was the reluctance of the manufacturers of the medications to lower their costs to make it possible for people in Africa and other low-income countries to afford them.
However, beginning on the continent of Africa, nations started to make better plans to stop the progress of the HIV virus by offering medications at much lower costs than the drug companies wanted to charge.
This has been accomplished by pharmaceutical companies outside the U.S. making very similar medications to those made and sold by big pharma in the United States and charging much lower prices.
Then developing nations decided to buy these lifesaving substances and offer them at either a much-reduced cost through supplementations or giving them away for free. The results from these initiatives has been wondrous.
Thanks to the medications becoming widely available, countries once the center of the AIDS epidemic have slashed their infection rates in half while reducing deaths from AIDS by almost half.
However, the epidemic has a new focus, people in the United States are having severe problems affording their drugs. While HIV medications to treat the infection in Africa cost $75 a year, almost drugs cost $39,000 per year.
To make matters even worse for citizens living in the U.S., insurance may not cover the costs of these vital substances. An article published in The New Times in September 2018, reported the disparities that exist in the coverage to pay for HIV/AIDS treatment.
Private insurance companies, depending on the coverage, usually offer their policy owners good coverage for medications to treat HIV/AIDS. However, along with the coverage come high copays and premiums that can make paying for it prohibitive to most Americans.
Medicaid and Medicare cover nearly half of those living in the U.S. with coverage, however many people fall through the cracks in eligibility as you must be disabled from HIV. Medicare will pay for HIV/AIDS medications, but only until the beneficiary reaches the “donut hole” in their coverage when they must then pay out of pocket for their drugs.
While this is grim news for the citizens of the U.S. infected with HIV/AIDS, there are a few government and private organizations who are willing to help the burden posed by the enormous costs associated with lifesaving medication treatments.
Finally, Some Good News About HIV/AIDS
While the HIV/AIDS virus continues to plague much of the world, there are a few bits of good news. In June 2018, PBS News highlighted five changes that show progress in the war against HIV/AIDS.
One, A New Method of Testing. In southern Nigeria, a state known as Akwa Ibom has a new method of testing for the HIV/AIDS virus. They are testing not only pregnant women but all women at the ages where they will be having sex. Since the testing starts early in the life of women, they are more likely to catch the virus and lessen the transmission rate of the disease.
Two. Increasing Access. AIDS-Free Pittsburgh is raising awareness of HIV/AIDS by increasing access to pre-exposure prophylaxis to help prevent people at the highest risk for HIV/AIDS from its transmission.
Three, Closing the Transportation Gap. Because access to food can be difficult for those who lack transportation in Central Indiana, Meals on Wheels of Central Indiana has begun delivering food to people living there with HIV or AIDS.
Four, Increased AIDS Funding. San Francisco is adding $4.2 million to the city’s budget for HIV/AIDS programs to promote prevention, testing and syringe access and disposal.
Five, Apps to Help Track Treatment. Phone apps are being developed to help people who are HIV positive self-manage their illness. The apps help patients stay with their treatment plan and gives them access to support through virtual groups.
While at first glance these five changes may not seem like much. After all, millions of people around the globe are still becoming ill every year.
However, they offer a glimmer of hope that humanity is coming to terms with a killer that has invaded our species and are making strides forward to find a solution and possibly in the future, a cure to end the reign of HIV/AIDS from the planet forever.
If you fear you have have been infected by the HIV virus, there are resources available for you to get tested and find help.
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