What is HIV?

HIV is an abbreviation for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This virus is one which, interestingly, makes use of cells needed during the immune response of an individual for replication i.e. CD4 T-cells. Since HIV makes use of an individual’s immune cells as part of its replication process these immune cells gradually become damaged, leading to the infected individual having a weakened immune response to infections.

Consequently, at the worst stage of disease progression an HIV infected individual may become Immunodeficient, which is termed Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

This makes the eventuality of a severe infection, caused by an illness/ disease which may not be too serious in a person with an uncompromised immune system, more likely. These type of infections are known as opportunistic infections. (CDC)

What are some of the common symptoms of HIV infection?

The symptoms of HIV infection vary vastly between individuals, with some people presenting no symptoms at all. In the early phase of the disease patients may present with non-specific symptoms such as headache, fever, sore throat.

The severity of symptoms worsen as the patient’s immune system becomes more impaired by the viral infection. As the disease progresses patients may experience symptoms like diarrhoea, weight loss, and fevers. If left untreated HIV patients are at a greater risk of developing more severe infections such as certain cancers, Tuberculosis (TB) and severe infections.

People with these symptoms should seek medical help immediately!

Almost a fourth of South Africa women in their reproductive ages (15–49 years) are HIV positive.

FAQs on HIV

HIV is spread by various mechanisms, where a person comes in to contact with infected body fluids e.g. blood, vaginal or rectal secretions, breast milk, semen or pre-seminal secretion. The virus is commonly spread from one individual to another when infected body fluid comes into contact with mucous membranes, open cuts/wounds, or intravenously by means of injection with a contaminated needle or from mother to child during breastfeeding or pregnancy.

In an effort to prevent HIV infection, it is important to minimise potential contact to the virus where possible.

Strategies to do this include

  • Knowing your HIV status, as well as the HIV status of your sexual partner
  • Correctly using condoms and lubrication during intercourse
  • Avoiding the use of injectable drugs

HIV is treated with a variety of antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Whilst ARV therapy (ART) does not cure HIV, it has proved to be extremely effective in subduing viral reproductive mechanisms, as a result of this, the patient’s immune system has the opportunity to produce immune cells without being suppressed by the virus. This, in turn has the effect of allowing the patient’s body to fend off opportunistic infections more effectively.

Knowing your HIV status is extremely empowering as testing negative will allow you to continue using methods to prevent contracting the virus, and testing positive means you will be able to get the treatment needed to improve your quality of life!

Commonly, 2 types of HIV tests are utilised: one which detects HIV antibodies/ antigen, and the other which detects viral nucleic acid. Early diagnosis of HIV means that you will be able to begin your treatment regimen before your immune system is greatly suppressed, this also decreases the risk of viral transmission.