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.
are HIV and AIDS?
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
is HIV infection passed to another person?
HIV can be passed from one person to another in
- Sexual contact with an infected partner -
HIV lives in blood, semen and vaginal fluids, so the virus can enter the body
through the lining of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth during sex.
- Sharing needles or syringes that have been contaminated
with blood from someone who has HIV.
- A HIV-infected mother can pass the virus on
to her unborn child.
- Blood transfusions - in the past, HIV sometimes
was spread to people who received contaminated blood transfusions, but all
blood supplies are now screened and treated for the virus so the risk is extremely
are the symptoms of HIV infection?
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
- Lack of energy.
- Weight loss.
- Frequent fevers and sweats.
- Persistent or frequent yeast infections (oral
- Persistent skin rashes or flaky skin.
- Skin lesions.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease that does not respond
- Short-term memory loss.
are the main risk factors of HIV/AIDS?
Certain activities increase the risk of contracting
- Sharing drug needles or syringes.
- Sexual contact with an infected person or with
someone whose HIV status is unknown without using a latex male condom. Some
people who have another STD such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydial infection,
gonorrhoea or bacterial vaginosis may be more susceptible to getting HIV infection
during sex with an infected partner.
can I protect myself?
- Avoid unprotected sex with people whose sexual
history is not known to you.
- Do not share needles or syringes.
- Use condoms every time you have sex, no matter
what kind of sex - spermicides can be used in addition to condoms in
vaginal sex; anal sex, which causes bleeding, is very risky, as the virus
is most easily spread through blood.
is HIV diagnosed?
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.
is the outlook?
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.
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