HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that is transmitted from person to person through blood and bodily fluids that contain blood. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports 48,100 new cases of HIV in the US in 2009, and according the UNAIDS project, the disease affected more than 34 million people globally by the end of 2010.
Once infected with the virus, it starts attacking the cells in the immune system that protect the body from illness and other infections. A person living with HIV may appear healthy and well for many years. Over time, the HIV-infected cells replace all of the healthy cells and the individual becomes at risk for “opportunistic infections” – infections that a healthy body/immune system could fight off. The development of these infections and/or certain types of cancers signals the onset of AIDS- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
The most common method for acquiring the virus is through unprotected sex with one or more partners who are infected; sharing needles and other drug-use related equipment with a person that is infected; and being born to a parent who is HIV-positive. Other potential but less common risks include being stuck with a needle or sharp object that has been in contact with infected blood, tattoos or any activity where blood could be transmitted.
Though aggressive inside the body, the HIV virus cannot live long outside of the body, therefore it cannot be passed by casual contact with an HIV-infected person, or touching door handles, toilet seats or drinking fountains.
The development and availability of drugs to fight the virus has significantly improved the lives of patients living with HIV and prolonged the progression to AIDS. These antiviral drugs work in combination to prevent the replication of the virus and decrease the amount of virus (known as viral load) that is in the body.
A prescriber with expertise in HIV and/or infectious disease would determine which medications and in what combination an individual would need to achieve the best possible outcome. People with HIV are also at risk for developing Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C, other blood-borne viruses that require intense treatment.
There has been much research and progress in testing, education and treatment of HIV and AIDS, but the CDC however it remains a global epidemic and experts agree that prevention of exposure remains the strongest weapon against it.