AIDS is the acronym for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, a human viral disease that affects and destroys the immune system. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and leaves an infected person vulnerable to opportunistic infections. No cure has as yet been found for AIDS and is invariably fatal once the infection is full blown although certain treatments can prolong the life spans and improve the quality of life of infected people. In this essay we shall describe the disease process, clinical symptoms, diagnosis, etiology, and the treatments available. We shall also briefly discuss how the disease is transmitted and its prevalence in different categories of people, e.g., gays and heterosexuals; men and women; adults and children.
The Disease Process
As we have observed in the introduction AIDS is caused by HIV. The disease process (from the time the HIV enters the body to the full-blown development of AIDS) is described below:
HIV has a protein structure on its surface that binds to a specific structure found on certain cells. The white blood cells (T cells) of the immune system in general, and the CD-4 type of T cells in particular, are especially vulnerable to HIV. When HIV virus enters the body, it infects the CD-4 cell and instructs the genetic tools of the cell to replicate more viruses. These newly formed viruses while breaking free from the host cell destroys it and go on to infect other CD-4 cells. (Bartlett, para on Cause). While this process is continuing, the infected individual goes through various phases of the disease.
During phase I of the disease (known as acute retro-viral syndrome or Primary HIV Infection) the HIV is reproducing itself rapidly in the blood. The infected person does not test HIV positive in this period but can infect others. (Bartlett. para on Symptoms; "FAQs -- What are the Symptoms of HIV?").
The next phase starts when the normal immune system of the body begins to respond by producing anti-bodies. Now the patient will test positive for HIV. The immune system reduces the HIV but does not eliminate it in the blood and the infected individual enters a prolonged asymptomatic phase that may last for 10 years or more. ("New Mexico Aids Info Net, What Happens..") Although the infected person may remain apparently healthy during this time but his/her T-cells, which are an important part of the immune system, are being progressively destroyed. In an average healthy person the CD-4 cell count is over 1000 per microliter of blood. As the count goes down, the HIV positive person starts to have disease symptoms and is said to have full-blown AIDS at this stage.
Two to three weeks after infection with HIV virus, the patient typically experiences flu-like symptoms including fever, sore throat, headache, skin-rash and a feeling of general discomfort. These symptoms usually last from 1 to 4 weeks and is known as phase I of the disease.
In phase II of the disease, which may last for the 7 to 11 years, few disease symptoms are exhibited. In phase III, AIDS symptoms such as fever, night-sweats and diarrhea appear. This is when the CD-4 cell count goes under 200, and the person also becomes vulnerable to a host of "opportunistic infections" and rare cancers. (Ibid. How do I Know..)
Symptoms alone are not a reliable diagnosis for being HIV positive or even AIDS, since fever, sore throat, headache, skin rash may be the symptoms of many other diseases as well. The only reliable way for diagnosing an HIV positive person (i.e., whether someone has been infected with HIV) is by conducting a combination of an Eliza/Western Blot HIV Antibody Test. This test determines whether antibodies that develop to fight the HIV virus are present in a person's body. If they are present -- it means the person is HIV positive. If the anti-bodies are not found it may mean that the person is free from HIV. However, it is important to remember that the anti-bodies against HIV may not develop for 3 months. (This period, known as the "window period" may in rare cases be of up to 6 months duration). Hence during the "window" period, even an HIV-infected person may test negative.
The anti-body test either by a blood test (taking a blood sample) or by taking a sample of oral mucus. Both methods provide the same level of accuracy in the diagnosis. If a patient is suspected of being an HIV patient but tests negative 3 months after a possible exposure to HIV, he/she may be tested again after 6 months. ("FAQs"- Original Source: San Francisco AIDS Foundation)
How is HIV Transmitted?
There are three ways in which HIV infection can be transmitted: sexual intercourse with an infected person, contact with contaminated blood, and transmission from an infected mother to her child before or during birth or through breastfeeding. Sexual intercourse may include genital, anal or oral sex. In the U.S. And Canada, HIV is most commonly transmitted through sex between homosexual men but in the rest of the world, it is spread most commonly through heterosexual sex. (Bartlett, para on How HIV Infection Spreads")
There are many misconceptions and myths about how HIV can be transmitted but it has been conclusively determined that it is not transmitted by day-to-day contact in the home, the workplace, schools, or social settings. HIV is also not transmitted through shaking hands, hugging or a casual kiss; neither can one be infected from a toilet seat, a drinking fountain, a doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets. ("FAQs: Can I get HIV...") This is because HIV is a fragile virus that cannot live for long outside the body.
Scientific research suggests that human HIV may have first crossed over into the human population from chimpanzees. Scientists confirmed in 1999 that this happened on at least 3 separate occasions in Central Africa in the 1940s or 1950s -- probably through blood contact during hunting and field dressing of the animals. The chimpanzee retro virus that infected humans is believed to have undergone mutations to evolve into human retrovirus.
Initially, the disease was confined to some isolated communities in Central Africa, but eventually spread to other parts of the world as wars, drought, and famine forced people from rural areas to migrate to cities to find jobs. (Bartlett-'Origin of the Virus'; 'FAQs')
The disease was first identified in June 1981 when several men in the gay community of New York and California began to develop rare forms of pneumonia that was known to occur only in people with damaged immune systems.
Some advances have been made in the treatment of AIDS but there is still no cure for the devastating disease. At present, AIDS treatment can only prolong the onset of full-blown AIDS after infection with HIV. This is achieved by a drug combination therapy called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) that aims at keeping the blood level of HIV at an undetectable level. The treatment can delay the onset of AIDS in an HIV positive person by several years, keep the person feeling healthier and prevent or lessen 'opportunistic' infections.
Most common 'opportunistic infections' in AIDS patients are Tuberculosis (affecting the lungs), Hepatitis C (affecting the liver) and anal and cervical cancers.
Drawbacks of HAART therapy include side effects in some patients such as nausea, headaches, weakness and diarrhea and more seriously the ability of HIV to mutate into a drug-resistant strain, resulting in a worsening of the disease if a dose of the drug is missed at the specified time. ("Fact Sheet"-Treating HIV / AIDS) Several alternate treatments such as homeopathic and herbal mecines, acupuncture, ayurvedic medicines are touted as effective treatments for AIDS but none of them have been scientifically proven to help. ("Alternative and Complementary Therapies")
About 40 million people were believed to have been infected worldwide with HIV / AIDS by the end of 2001. This includes 37.2 million adults and 2.7 million children younger than 15 years. A majority of these people (28.1 million or over 70%) live in Sub-Saharan Africa; another 15% (6.1 million) live in South and Southeast Asia. Although the prevalence of AIDS is falling in the developed world it is rising in the developing countries. About 1% of the adults (between the ages of 15 and 49) are infected with HIV. In 16 African countries this figure exceeds 10%. Approximately 48% of the HIV / AIDS carriers are women, and in 2001 alone HIV / AIDS was the cause of over 3 million deaths worldwide.
An important difference in the AIDS demographics between North America (U.S. And Canada) and the rest of the world is that 80% of adult HIV / AIDS infections worldwide are caused through heterosexual sex, while 60% of infections in the U.S. are caused in homosexual men. ("HIV / AIDS Statistics" original source: UNAIDS Global AIDS Epidemic Report, Dec 2001)
HIV / AIDS is one of the most lethal diseases ever, especially since…