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AIDS is regarded as the most serious sexually transmitted disease (STD) because so many people with AIDS have died. As yet, there is no cure and no vaccine, but research continues. AIDS was first reported in 1981 and has since become a worldwide epidemic. In the period 1982-98, 650 cases of AIDS were reported in Ireland and 332 people died from AIDS-related diseases.
AIDS is the abbreviation for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is caused by a virus called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV slowly destroys certain white blood cells in the body called the CD4+ T-cells. When these cells are working normally, they help the body fight infections and diseases caused by viruses and bacteria. When a person has HIV, these T-cells no longer work properly because HIV slowly destroys them and the body's ability to fight infections.
AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection. HIV infection is usually followed by a relatively long period (often several years) in which a person has no signs or symptoms of the disease. AIDS is diagnosed when signs and symptoms develop that show a person's immune system is no longer working properly.
HIV can be passed from one person to another in several ways:
Many people do not experience any symptoms when they are first infected with HIV. Some people have a flu-like illness within a month or two of exposure to the virus - for example, the early symptoms for some people may include fever, headache, fatigue, and enlarged lymph nodes (organs of the immune system). These symptoms usually disappear within 1-4 weeks and may be mistaken for another viral infection. This is a very infectious stage, and HIV is present in large quantities in genital secretions.
For others, more persistent or severe symptoms may not appear for a decade or more after HIV first enters the body. Symptoms can include:
Certain activities increase the risk of contracting HIV:
A person's blood is tested for the disease-fighting proteins (antibodies) to HIV. Two types of antibody tests - ELISA and Western Blot - are used to identify HIV infection. Saliva and urine can also be tested for HIV. A person who is tested for HIV should also receive counselling from a trained HIV/AIDS specialist. In Ireland, many people are routinely tested for AIDS when applying for life assurance.
The outlook for people in the developed world infected with HIV has improved dramatically over the past decade. A number of different drugs which, when taken in combination, will suppress the virus in the bloodstream have become available. Although this discovery is relatively new, it appears that suppression of the virus with these drugs will prevent the development of AIDS. However, these drugs need to be taken consistently and can cause side effects and thus require careful monitoring.
In the third world, the picture is much bleaker. AIDS is now the single largest killer in continental Africa, with infection rates of upwards of 25% of the entire populations reported for some African countries. Poverty, sexual taboos and particular sexual practices have led to the disease reaching epidemic level. The cost of drugs to arrest HIV remains far beyond the reach of the vast majority of people living in the third world, although pressure is growing on the pharmaceutical industry to dramatically lower the cost of drugs to stem this humanitarian catastrophe.
Research into HIV infection is ongoing and includes developing and testing HIV vaccines and new therapies for the disease and for some of its associated conditions. More than a dozen HIV vaccines are being tested in people and many other drugs are being developed or tested for HIV infection or AIDS-associated opportunistic infections. Research into determining how HIV damages the immune system is providing valuable insights into new and more effective targets for drugs and vaccines.