What is HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Unlike some other viruses, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. That means that once you have HIV, you have it for life.

HIV is spread by contact with infected bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Preventative measures include using condoms during sexual intercourse, using formula for infant feedings, and not sharing needles for intravenous injections. If an individual is already infected, taking a regular dosage of antiretroviral therapy (ART) can reduce the amount of the HIV virus in the blood and reduce the risk of transmission to others.

No safe and effective cure currently exists, but scientists are working hard to find one, and remain hopeful. Meanwhile, with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. Treatment with ART can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can have a nearly normal life expectancy.

HIV attacks the body's immune system. Specifically, it affects the white blood cells of the immune system, called CD4 cells, or T cells. White blood cells protect the body by attacking foreign pathogens in the blood. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. When this happens, HIV infection can deteriorate the body's defenses and lead to low CD4 counts, high HIV viral load counts, cancer, and opportunistic infections (OIs). OIs are common infections a healthy immune system could fight off but cause serious illness in HIV infected persons. Based on the CD4 count (cells/ml) HIV infection is classified as stage 1(CD4 count > 500), stage 2 (200-499) and stage 3, AIDS (<200). In Stage 3 disease, or AIDS, the individual is susceptible to infections and tumors.