AIDS

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Acquired immune deficiency syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS or Aids) is a collection of symptoms and infections resulting from the specific damage to the immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The late stage of the condition leaves individuals prone to opportunistic infections and tumors. Although treatments for AIDS and HIV exist to slow the virus's progression, there is no known cure. HIV is transmitted through direct contact of a mucous membrane or the bloodstream with a bodily fluid containing HIV, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, preseminal fluid, and breast milk.

This transmission can come in the form of anal, vaginal or oral sex, blood transfusion, contaminated hypodermic needles, exchange between mother and baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding, or other exposure to one of the above bodily fluids.

AIDS is the most severe manifestation of infection with HIV. HIV is a retrovirus that primarily infects vital components of the human immune system such as CD4+ T cells (a subset of T cells), macrophages and dendritic cells.

In the absence of antiretroviral therapy, the median time of progression from HIV infection to AIDS is nine to ten years, and the median survival time after developing AIDS is only 9 months. However, the rate of clinical disease progression varies widely between individuals, from two weeks up to 20 years.

Diagnosis

Stage I: HIV infection is asymptomatic and not categorized as AIDS
Stage II: includes minor mucocutaneous manifestations and recurrent upper respiratory tract infections
Stage III: includes unexplained chronic diarrhea for longer than a month, severe bacterial infections and pulmonary tuberculosis
Stage IV: includes toxoplasmosis of the brain, candidiasis of the esopfagus, trachea, bronchi or lungs and Kaposi’s sarcoma; these diseases are indicators of AIDS

HIV test

Many people are unaware that they are infected with HIV. Less than 1% of the sexually active urban population in Africa has been tested, and this proportion is even lower in rural populations. Furthermore, only 0.5% of pregnant women attending urban health facilities are counseled, tested or receive their test results. Again, this proportion is even lower in rural health facilities.

Therefore, donor blood and blood products used in medicine and medical research are screened for HIV. Typical HIV tests, including the HIV enzyme immunoassay and the Western blot assay, detect HIV antibodies in serum, plasma, oral fluid, dried blood spot or urine of patients. However, the window period (the time between initial infection and the development of detectable antibodies against the infection) can vary. This is why it can take 3–6 months to seroconvert and test positive.

Commercially available tests to detect other HIV antigens, HIV-RNA, and HIV-DNA in order to detect HIV infection prior to the development of detectable antibodies are available. For the diagnosis of HIV infection these assays are not specifically approved, but are nonetheless routinely used in developed countries.

Symptoms and complications

The symptoms of AIDS are primarily the result of conditions that do not normally develop in individuals with healthy immune systems. Most of these conditions are infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that are normally controlled by the elements of the immune system that HIV damages. Opportunistic infections are common in people with AIDS. HIV affects nearly every organ system. People with AIDS also have an increased risk of developing various cancers such as Kaposi's sarcoma, cervical cancer and cancers of the immune system known as lymphomas.

Additionally, people with AIDS often have systemic symptoms of infection like fevers, sweats (particularly at night), swollen glands, chills, weakness, and weight loss. After the diagnosis of AIDS is made, the current average survival time with antiretroviral therapy (as of 2005) is estimated to be more than 5 years, but because new treatments continue to be developed and because HIV continues to evolve resistance to treatments, estimates of survival time are likely to continue to change. Without antiretroviral therapy, death normally occurs within a year. Most patients die from opportunistic infections or malignancies associated with the progressive failure of the immune system.

The rate of clinical disease progression varies widely between individuals and has been shown to be affected by many factors such as host susceptibility and immune function health care and co-infections, as well as factors relating to the viral strain. The specific opportunistic infections that AIDS patients develop depend in part on the prevalence of these infections in the geographic area in which the patient lives.

Transmission and prevention

The three main transmission routes of HIV are sexual contact, exposure to infected body fluids or tissues, and from mother to fetus or child during perinatal period. It is possible to find HIV in the saliva, tears, and urine of infected individuals, but there are no recorded cases of infection by these secretions, and the risk of infection is negligible.

Never use needles or syringes that have been used by others. When receiving medical attention, always insist that unused, disposable equipment or fully sterilized material is used. If you do need an injection, ask to see the syringe unwrapped in front of you, or better still take a needle and syringe pack with you overseas - it is a cheap insurance package against infection with HIV. Never use another person's razor or toothbrush. Don't have parts of your body pierced, or allow yourself to be tattooed.

Treatment

There is currently no vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. The only known methods of prevention are based on avoiding exposure to the virus or, failing that, an antiretroviral treatment directly after a highly significant exposure, called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP has a very demanding four week schedule of dosage. It also has very unpleasant side effects including diarrhea, malaise, nausea and fatigue.

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