Oct 7, 2016

What Everyone Needs to Know About HIV

You’re probably already aware that HIV is a serious disease that affects people all across the globe. It is an infection that carries with it an aura of intense stigma and fear. Some of this fear is well deserved. HIV is a serious infection that has baffled medical researchers for decades.

Recent research continues to increase our understanding of HIV, and there is presently a great deal of information on its prevention and treatment that everyone should know.

HIV Prevention

There is still no real cure for HIV. This means that preventing the infection is the absolute best form of treatment.

HIV is primarily a bloodborne pathogen. This means that it resides almost entirely in the bloodstream and requires contact with blood or similar bodily fluids in order to spread infection. The primary means of HIV transmission remain blood infusions, contact with the blood of an infected person, sharing needles and sexual contact. This means there is no reason to be unusually fearful of normal contact with an infected person. Touching them, being close to them for prolonged periods and even kissing them will not spread the infection.

The risk of transmission by blood infusion has decreased dramatically due to much stricter protocols around blood donations and testing. There is generally very little risk of this when under proper medical supervision.

Preventing contact with infected fluids is still the best way to protect against HIV. This means wearing gloves and masks when caring for a person’s injuries. It will especially mean avoiding unprotected sex, and preferably any sexual contact with the infected person unless their infection is under control.

Those who have a very high risk of exposure may use Pre-exposure prophylaxis medications to help prevent infection.

How HIV Infection Works

HIV attacks the immune system, primarily focused on the white blood cells. The human immune system can fight off HIV to a point, but the immune system is eventually overwhelmed because it is being targeted directly. Ultimately, it weakens to the point where it cannot fight off other infections. At this point it is usually considered AIDS.

You cannot die from HIV infection all by itself. If you were inside a sterile bubble, your body would live even if you had no immune system at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible, and as your immune system weakens you develop secondary infections that you would normally be able to survive. These secondary infections eventually result in death.

Infection with HIV is especially harmful because it is often undetectable. It is common for a person to contract HIV and have it for many years without knowing. This lack of awareness often contributes greatly to the unintentional spread of HIV.

You should be aware of your partner’s health status before agreeing to sex. If they have a lifestyle that increases their risk of infection, for example having sex with multiple partners or having frequent anal sex, then it’s a good idea for them (and you) to be tested regularly.

Testing, usually using a sample of bodily fluid such as blood, is the only way to accurately determine HIV infection. Testing has made many advances in recent years. Home testing kits are now available that can give quick and reasonably accurate results if used correctly. It’s important to note that a definitive test should be conducted by a healthcare professional if any home tests reveal a positive result.

There have been some reports that acute symptoms such as fever and weakness can appear within a few weeks of infection. It is so easy to dismiss these symptoms, however, that few people notice them. Even in its very advanced stages, the symptoms of HIV are easily dismissed or confused with other diseases. Generally, a person in the advanced stages will be unusually weak. They may suffer frequent sickness and infections that last longer than normal or do not go away without aggressive treatment.

Standard HIV Treatment

HIV treatments help patients to control the infection in their bodies by reducing their viral load to levels considered undetectable. This does not mean that a person is cured of HIV, but undetectable levels will make them very unlikely to spread the infection or suffer complications so they can live a mostly normal life. Undetectable levels are considered to be 20 copies/ml or 50 copies/ml depending on the test used.

The World Health Organization is currently seeking the 90/90/90 goal. This means that 90 percent of people with HIV will be properly diagnosed, 90 percent of people diagnosed will receive proper treatment and 90 percent of those treated will have undetectable viral loads. The WHO believes that if these targets are met, then the spread of HIV will be brought under control.

The most common treatments are a combination of medicines, called an antiretroviral therapy, or ART. These drugs stop the virus from replicating and help the immune system to continue fighting it. Unfortunately, there is no known antiviral that can completely eradicate the virus because they do not target dormant cells that are carrying the virus. Even if all active copies of the virus are eliminated, the dormant cells release more copies that continue the infection.

Breakthrough modern HIV treatments are beginning to expand the horizons of treatment by creating therapies that target both active and dormant cells throughout the body. Former therapies were limited by their ability to target cells only in certain areas of the body, resulting in incomplete treatment. While this treatment has not been thoroughly proven, if successful it could represent an actual cure for HIV.

Alternative HIV Treatments

There are also alternative treatments for HIV that a patient may consider in addition to ART. Anything that strengthens the immune system may help with HIV infection. The stronger the immune system remains, the longer a person can live a healthy life even with HIV infection. This can include maintaining a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and limiting the effects of stress. It is also important to reduce exposure to other diseases as much as possible. Acupuncture and massage therapy have been examined as effective ways to help a person relax and reduce stress.

Some of the latest HIV studies have shown that certain natural dietary supplements may actually interfere with certain HIV medications. The studies concluded that garlic supplements and St. John’s Wart actually impeded the effectiveness of common treatment medications. Since these supplements were often used to boost immune health, the negative interaction was noticeable.

Dealing with HIV infection can also be difficult emotionally. Many people view HIV as a terminal illness. It can also cause major disruptions to personal relationships and especially sexual partners. An important and often overlooked alternative treatment for HIV is proper counseling to deal with both the psychological effects of having such a disease and any lifestyle problems or choices that may have increased the risk of infection. The truth is that many people can live out a mostly normal life even if they are infected with HIV so long as they understand the disease and seek proper and consistent treatment.

There is no denying that HIV is a serious global epidemic. It is important for everyone to understand the truth of HIV infection and avoid its common stereotypes as a “gay disease” or something that infects primarily unsafe drug users. A real and complete understanding will help to control the spread of HIV and lead to better treatments and ultimately a cure.

designer491 / Shutterstock.com

designer491 / Shutterstock.com

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