HIV – HUMAN IMMUNODEFICIENCY VIRUS
Human immunodeficiency virus is a retrovirus that attacks cells of the immune system and destroys or malfunctions them. In the body, it attacks a group of white blood cells, T lymphocytes, in which it multiplies, and later kills them, thus reduces their number in the body of the infected person. A significant decrease in the number of white blood cells plays an important role in the defense of the human body, leads to a failure of immunity and develops into AIDS. By weakening the immune system, a person is more easily succumbed to other bacterial or viral diseases. The HIV virus is incurable and cannot be vaccinated against it. However, if the infection is detected in time, it may not break out into AIDS and people with the virus can live a full life.
Method of transmission
The most common way of transmitting the disease to another person is through unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, the riskiest is anal). Men who have sex with other men are at greatest risk. HIV can also infect a baby from the mother during pregnancy, especially during childbirth. Another possible way is through transfusion of contaminated blood, blood products or contaminated tissue. Particularly at risk are drug users who share contaminated needles and syringes are particular. You can also become infected through tattoo or piercing tools.
The course of HIV
The course of HIV infection is most often divided into 4 stages. The time required to move from one stage to another varies from person to person. It is also not possible to describe the stages and expect that HIV infection will proceed as described in everyone. Although it is not possible to accurately describe the course of infection, the following description may help to understand the course of HIV infection up to AIDS.
After the HIV virus enters the human body, it begins to settle in the cells. People are considered infectious (that is, able to transmit HIV to another person) immediately after infection. People can look completely healthy for many years, even though their body is already changing. That’s why regular testing is the best way to find out your HIV status.
Stage 1 – primary / acute infection and seroconversion
In the first week or two, the HIV virus tries to get inside the cells of our immune system. The body makes antibodies against HIV to fight the virus – a process called seroconversion. It usually lasts from 6 to 12 weeks. Already during this period, the infected person can transmit the infection to other people.
During this period, some people feel fine, respectively the intensity of the symptoms is so low that they do not notice anything unusual. The person himself looks and feels quite healthy and even his/her partner does not recognize anything about him/her. About 70% of people experience non-specific flu-like symptoms (fever, swollen nodes, night sweats, shivering). Only 20% of them feel such difficulties that they visit a doctor. However, usually the symptoms do not lead to suspicion of HIV infection. HIV antibody tests performed at this stage (if seroconversion is not yet complete) will not confirm infection because the body has not yet generated enough antibodies to be shown in the test. This situation is also described as a “false negative” result. You must wait at least 12 weeks after the risky behavior.
Stage 2 – asymptomatic stage
This stage lasts for several years and is characterized by the fact that the infected person does not show major symptoms. During this time, there is no indication that the person is ill, except for swollen lymph nodes. However, the healthy feeling does not mean that nothing is happening in the body. The HIV virus, on the other hand, is very active, trying to get into most human cells, constantly multiplying and penetrating further and further. Usually, this period lasts about 8 to 10 years. However, everyone is different and therefore the length of the asymptomatic stage is very individual. For some, the HIV virus may progress slower, for others, unfortunately, faster. People who know about their HIV status are under the care of a doctor who monitors CD4 cell counts (or CD4 cells, sometimes also T-lymphocytes or T-helper lymphocytes, are white blood cells that organize the immune system’s defenses against bacterial, fungal or viral infections) and viral load. These two data are important in determining the progress of the infection. Early diagnosis of HIV infection and effective treatment allow people living with HIV to take control of the infection before the symptoms of HIV infection appear. If the treatment is successful, the infection will not even proceed to the next stage. It does not mean that a person has been healed. It is still necessary to monitor the infection by a doctor, but a person can lead a full life.
Stage 3 – symptomatic stage
At this stage, the immune system is exposed to the HIV virus for a long time. People begin to experience the first signs of HIV infection (e.g.: fatigue, night sweats, mild weight loss, skin infections, herpes diseases). This stage can last for varying lengths – it is affected by many factors (eg: the rate at which the virus multiplies, whether you are being treated or have just learned about your HIV status), but the average duration of the symptom stage is 5 to 7 years.
As the disease progresses, the symptoms intensify and the immune system becomes increasingly severely damaged. Associated (opportunistic) infections are beginning to show. These infections could be overcome by a person infected with HIV with weakened immunity with great difficulty. Typical infections that are affected and that affect HIV infection are tuberculosis and hepatitis B and C.
Stage 4 – late stage
AIDS occurs when the immune system is already severely damaged by the long-term action and multiplication of the HIV virus in the blood. This stage is diagnosed on the basis of several criteria:
- very low CD4 cell count (less than 200 in 1 mm3 of blood)
- long-term high values of viral load
- the presence of one or more associated (opportunistic) infections
In the AIDS stage, the immune system is severely damaged, and the accompanying symptoms of an AIDS outbreak include weight loss, brain tumors, and other health problems.
Diagnosis and prevention
The most effective way of prevention is to use a male or female condom for all forms of sex and to use your own syringes and water if you are using drugs by injection. At least 3 months of risky behavior are required to diagnose HIV, until which no antibodies have been formed in the body to confirm or refute the presence of HIV. HIV testing is provided anonymously by the outpatient departments of the National HIV / AIDS Reference Center or the Regional Public Health Offices.
There are also over-the-counter diagnostic tests that can be purchased at pharmacies and other locations. These make it possible to detect antibodies to the HIV virus within 15 to 20 minutes of oral fluid or blood samples. However, the tests are intended for healthcare professionals, so it is best to ask your doctor for testing. You can also find out about the possibility of testing from field workers of the civic organization Odyseus or directly at the Center K2 – Contact with the community.
You can obtain more information about the symptoms, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS on our website, which deals exclusively with this topic: https://www.hivaids.sk