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HIV/AIDS Information

Questions:

What is HIV?
What is AIDS?
Where did HIV come from?
How does HIV cause AIDS?
How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?
How can I tell if I have HIV or AIDS?


What is HIV?
 
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. This virus may be passed from one person to another when infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions come in contact with an uninfected person’s broken skin or mucous membranes (including the mouth, eyes, nasal passages, vagina, rectum, and opening of the penis). In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their baby during pregnancy or delivery, as well as through breast-feeding. People with HIV have what is called HIV infection. Some of these people will develop AIDS as a result of their HIV infection.

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What is AIDS?
 
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
 
Acquired – means that the disease is not hereditary but develops after birth from contact with a disease causing agent (in this case, HIV).
Immunodeficiency – means that the disease is characterized by a weakening of the immune system.
Syndrome – refers to a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease. In the case of AIDS this can include the development of certain infections and/or cancers, as well as a decrease in the number of certain cells in a person’s immune system.
 
A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using specific clinical or laboratory standards.

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Where did HIV come from?
 
The earliest known case of HIV-1 in a human was from a blood sample collected in 1959 from a man in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. (How he became infected is not known.) Genetic analysis of this blood sample suggested that HIV-1 may have stemmed from a single virus in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
 
We know that the virus has existed in the United States since at least the mid- to late 1970s. From 1979-1981 rare types of pneumonia, cancer, and other illnesses were being reported by doctors in Los Angeles and New York among a number of male patients who had sex with other men. These were conditions not usually found in people with healthy immune systems.
 
In 1999 an international team of researchers reported that they had discovered the origins of HIV-1, the predominant strain of HIV in the developed world. A subspecies of chimpanzees native to west equatorial Africa had been identified as the original source of the virus. The researchers believe that HIV-1 was introduced into the human population when hunters became exposed to infected blood from those chimpanzees.

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How does HIV cause AIDS?
 
HIV replicates in (and ultimately destroys) a certain kind of blood cell (CD4 T cells) which is crucial to the normal function of the human immune system. In fact, loss of these cells in people with HIV is an extremely powerful predictor of the development of AIDS. Studies of thousands of people have revealed that most people infected with HIV carry the virus for years before enough damage is done to the immune system for AIDS to develop. However, sensitive tests have shown a strong connection between the amount of HIV in the blood and the decline in CD4 T cells and the development of AIDS. Reducing the amount of virus in the body with anti-retroviral therapies can dramatically slow the destruction of a person’s immune system.

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How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

On average, the untreated HIV infected patient will progress to AIDS in about 5-10 years.  Since 1996, the introduction of powerful anti-retroviral therapies has dramatically changed the natural progression of HIV infection to the development of AIDS. These drugs and advancements in other medical treatments can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS.  While HIV infection cannot at present be cured, patients that are newly diagnosed with HIV that stay in care can be expected to have near normal life expectancies if they take their medications.  As with other chronic diseases, early detection of infection allows for more options for treatment and preventive health care.

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How can I tell if I have HIV or AIDS?
 
The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for 10 years or more.
 
The following may be warning signs of advanced HIV infection:   

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Profound and unexplained fatigue
  • Swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • White spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • Pneumonia
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders

However, no one should assume they are infected if they have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses. Again, the only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. For information on where to find an HIV testing site, call the West Virginia HIV/AIDS & STD Hotline at 1-800-642-8244.

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