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Acquired Immune Deficiency System (AIDS)


Definition and Overview:

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic and life disease caused by a virus called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus slowly destroys cells of the body’s immune system making the person with the disease more susceptible to infection and severe complications. The term AIDS is used to represent these later stages of infection when diseases are harder to combat. Since its recognition as a condition in 1981 AIDS has killed more than 25 million people throughout the world. 

Causes and Symptoms:

HIV when inside the body invades a certain type of cell called a CD4 lymphocyte. Upon entry into CD4, the HIV inserts its own genetic material. The host CD4 lymphocyte then makes new copies of the HIV virus and releases more HIV into the body. With this process billions of virus particles are made each day, and the number of white blood cells in the body begins to fall. When the amount of white blood cells falls low enough, the body is more susceptible to disease, and this leads to the complications seen in AIDS.

HIV is spread by unprotected sexual contact, sharing vaginal or seminal secretions and sharing sexual devices. It is very important to use condoms. The virus can also be transmitted by coming into contact with infected blood and by blood transfusion. It is also transmitted by sharing needles, for drug or other purposes. HIV can be transmitted from an infected mother to her child during childbirth or through breastfeeding. It is always important to take special care when dealing with HIV and its transmission, be it using clean needles, seeking professional advice on being pregnant with HIV, or having an infected sexual partner.

Symptoms of HIV infection include flu-like feelings about six weeks after infection as your body attempts to fight the virus. The symptoms of AIDS come much later in the disease, usually 8-10 years, and they include complications of diseases that are not seen in healthy people. They arise as a result of a weakened immune system and are called opportunistic infection. They are very common in people with AIDS and can affect almost all parts of the body ranging from rare cancers, to bacterial infections, to parasites. People with AIDS will also have symptoms of infection such as fever, chills, weight loss, and weakness.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has defined AIDS to include a positive test for the virus in the blood accompanied by CD4 lymphocyte counts of 200 cells per milliliter of blood or less, and at least one opportunistic infection. Opportunistic infections are many but two of the more common ones include pneumonia and tuberculosis (bacterial infection of the lungs). The person will also be more susceptible to parasitic infection. Lastly AIDS patients can also acquire dementia, and rare types of cancers. 

Treatment and Prognosis:

When HIV was first identified there were not many drugs on the market that could treat the disease. Since then many different drugs have been developed and have helped extend and enhance quality of life. As of now HIV/AIDS infection is an incurable disease, but the drugs all help to slow its progression and damage to the body. The most popular drugs to use are called anti-retroviral, and they prevent the virus from inserting its genetic information into the host CD4 lymphocyte cell. Doctors recommend taking at least three of these anti-retroviral drugs at a time. The program of treatment is called the highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART. The goal of the regimen is to keep the amount of virus in the body as low as possible for as long as possible. These drugs have been very effective in reducing the rapid acquisition of AIDS complications. They are, however, very expensive and can have their own complications. The complication can include bone marrow suppression, nausea, vomiting, nightmares, birth defects, fatigue, diabetes, abnormal fat deposition, trouble concentrating, dizziness, and sleepiness. There are many new drugs in development that attempt to lessen the side effects.

The rate of disease progression can vary anywhere from two weeks to over 20 years, in the absence of drugs. When taking medication an HIV infected person can live a normal lifespan with proper management.

Because there is no cure for HIV/AIDS it is important to try and prevent transmission by avoiding contact with infected fluids such as blood, seminal/vaginal fluid, and breast milk. It is important to know whether or not a potential sexual partner is infected. Also because there is a period of time when HIV infection is undetectable it is important to always use a latex condom, if you don’t know the HIV status of a partner. When using needles it is important to use a new clean one every time and to never share or accept a used needle.