Dr Bela Sharma, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram
HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus
AIDS: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome As is evident from the definition, HIV is the virus or the cause and AIDS is the disease caused by it.
The first documented cases of HIV infection were reported in the early1980s in New York and California but retrospective studies have indicated that the virus may have been around since as early as 1920s or 1930s.
HIV is very similar to a viral strain SIV affecting certain species of monkeys and apes. There are various theories as to how this Simian virus-infected human, the most plausible being, either through an infected needle or probably a knife or wound which was infected with the blood of the animal. Once in human circulation, the virus underwent mutation and became Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Another theory is that two different strains of SIV joined together and formed a different strain that adapted itself to its new host – the human being.
There are four known routes of infection of the virus.
- Unprotected sexual contact with a person whose status is not known
- Infected needles
- Infected blood
- From infected mother to the child during birth
The virus as the name suggests attacks the blood cells that are responsible for our immunity or protecting us against various infections from outside. In short, it attacks our very defence like an enemy within.
The disease is not curable but definitely treatable.
- Acute infection: This is the earliest stage and develops within 2 to 4 weeks of getting infected. The period between getting infected and developing, a positive blood test is known as the “window period” and may last upto three months depending upon the test being performed. The person does not have any symptoms in this stage but is highly infective to others.
Starting ART at this stage is highly beneficial as it can prevent damage to organs and prolong life.
- Asymptomatic: May last for many years, as the name suggests, there are no symptoms. Some persons can continue to lead a normal lifestyle for ten years and even beyond, with regular medications and check-ups. Without conducting a test, a number of patients may not even be aware, that they are infected.
- Symptomatic: Once the immune system is compromised to a large extent, the body becomes prey to every minor infection that comes it’s the way. Initially, the symptoms are non-specific including loss of weight, loss of appetite, chronic loose motions, unexplained fever, oral thrush etc. these are caused by opportunistic infections that the body is not able to fight off because of a weakened immune system.
Some specific examples of opportunistic infections are tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and Kaposi’s sarcoma.
- AIDS: There is no definite time limit between the second or the third or the third and the fourth stage.
- Not every person who gets infected with HIV ends up with AIDS. With proper medication and care, this number is now greatly reduced. But those that do land with AIDS, have multisystem organ failure due to overwhelming infections. There are a number of individuals ling with HIV who have not developed AIDS. There have been one or two cases of remissions also probably but we do not have sufficient data as of now. As has been said, time and again, AIDS is not curable as of now but definitely preventable and treatable.