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HIV/AIDS: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening infectious disease caused by a virus. The virus damages the immune system and makes the person prone to serious infections and cancer. It runs a long and variable course and can be managed to some extent by current anti-viral drugs. This disease has immense public health importance because it can be prevented with simple precautions.

HIV/AIDS: Incidence, age and sex

HIV/AIDS is a global disease with 35 million people infected worldwide. The prevalence is high in certain areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Certain sections of the population like commercial sex workers, homosexuals, intra-venous drug abusers are more prone to get HIV infection.

Signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS: Diagnosis

Initially there are no symptoms of HIV infection. In some people, there can be flu-like symptoms like fever, sore throat, skin rash and enlargement of the glands in neck and arm pits. This illness usually resolves in a week or two and the person remains symptom-free for a variable duration. The infection progresses to AIDS in about 10 years, with appearance of what are called opportunistic infections. The person may acquire infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, diarrhoea, meningitis. There is marked wasting of muscles and general cachexia. If untreated, the patient usually succumbs to one of these infections.

HIV infection is diagnosed by a blood test called ELISA which detects antibodies against the virus. However, this test becomes positive only after six weeks of acquiring the virus. If ELISA is found to be positive the result is further confirmed by another blood test called the Western Blot. Estimation of CD4 cell count (type of white blood cell) and HIV viral load is important in staging the disease as well as deciding subsequent treatment.

Causes and prevention of HIV/AIDS

AIDS is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is transmitted by unprotected sexual contact, use of infected blood and blood products, sharing of needles and from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth. It is not transmitted by casual contact like shaking hands, kissing, sharing of clothes, toilets.

The most important preventive strategy for HIV infection is adopting safe sexual practices which include avoidance of multiple sex partners and use of condoms. Proper testing of blood and blood products before transfusion is essential. If a pregnant woman is infected with HIV the risk of transmission to baby can be minimised by proper anti-viral treatment.

HIV/AIDS: Complications

The complications of HIV/AIDS result from opportunistic infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia (caused by atypical organisms), persistent diarrhoea (caused by certain protozoa), infection of brain membranes or meningitis, fungal infections like Candida and Cryptococcus Advanced AIDS disease also predisposes to development of certain cancers like lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

HIV/AIDS: Treatment

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. The currently available treatment can control the virus and retard the disease progression. There are several classes of drugs, which are used in combination and are referred to as anti-retroviral therapy. These drugs are very effective and are able to control the virus for a prolonged time.