|What Is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). First recognized in 1981, HIV weakens the body’s natural ability to fight disease, infections and cancer. About 50,000 Americans become infected with HIV every year. AIDS is the later stage of a HIV infection when a person’s immune system is severely damaged and they become very ill. Before the development of new drugs people progressed from HIV to AIDS within a few years. Today, with more knowledge and better combinations of ‘active’ drugs (introduced in the mid 1990s), patients are living much longer, even decades before they develop AIDS. At this point in time there is no cure for the disease. Once a person develops AIDs it is not possible to recover a normal immune system. Several hundred strains of the HIV virus exist, but the two main types are HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is usually the cause of infection in the United States, and HIV-2 in poorer countries.
Note: HIV is nothing to do with the HPV virus which is far less deadly.
Women And HIV
About 47 percent of the 33 million adults infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide are female. In the United States the CDC estimates the figure is more like 30 percent. AIDS remains one of the leading causes of death in American women aged 25 to 44. Although Hispanics and African American women make up less than 25 percent of the population they account for over 75 percent of HIV infections reported in women. In 1996 the overall death rate from AIDS fell for the first time in the U.S. but the rate rose 3 percent for women. This may be because in the early course of the epidemic women and heterosexuals were considered low risk and symptoms were missed, resulting in delays in treatment.
What Are The Signs Of HIV?
About 20 percent of people newly infected will develop flu-like symptoms that last a week or two:
• Unexplained fever.
• Swollen glands (particularly in the groin, armpits and neck).
About 10 years later: Signs which may become persistent include:
• Severe diarrhea.
• Breathing difficulties.
• Night sweats.
• Lack of coordination.
• Dry cough.
• Unexplained weight loss.
• Abnormal Pap test result (precancer or cervical cancer cells are found).
• Recurrent yeast infections.
Although frequent yeast infections are common in many women, any woman who suddenly develops regular infections (and is not taking antibiotics which predispose her to it) should discuss HIV testing with her doctor.
As HIV progresses to AIDS
• Severe genital herpes infections that are resistant to treatment.
• HIV positive women have twice the number of menstruation irregularities as other women.
• Difficult to treat forms of cervical cancer.
Mid-Stage Of Disease
• Tuberculosis and other bacterial infections.
• Hairy leukoplakia (yeast infections of the mouth).
• Opportunistic infections. These are infections that are not usually found in people with normal immune systems. Women may develop pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), which is relatively rare in healthy people. Women with AIDS often develop regular bouts of pneumonia.
Herpes infections that lead to blindness, pneumonia, inflammation of the colon (colitis) and esophagus (esophagitis) as well as infections of the brain and lungs. The most common sign in the end stages of AIDS is progressive dementia. Many patients also develop weakness in the arms and legs and are confined to wheelchairs.
How Is HIV Spread?
HIV is spread through body fluids, either semen or blood. This can happen by:
• Not using a condom or female condom when having sex with an infected person.
• Sharing needles and syringes with an infected person.
• Being born to an infected mother—HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.
• Women have a higher risk of catching the virus from an infected partner if he is not circumcised or if she is having a period.
• Receiving a blood transfusion using contaminated blood. This is relatively rare in the United States now as all blood donations are screened.
• Being stuck with a HIV contaminated needle - this is a particular worry for those working in hospitals and the police force.
• Being bitten by an infected person - but for the virus to transfer the attacker needs to break your skin. Only a few such documented cases exist.
It Is NOT spread by:
• Air or water.
• Insect bites, including mosquito bites.
• Saliva, sweat or tears. You cannot catch it by being spit on.
• Casual contact like shaking hands or sharing dishes.
Who Is At Risk?
Studies show that the majority of infected women are of childbearing age, married and monogamous. The majority are poor and nearly half gave birth to a child before the age of 15. Most women become infected by intravenous drug use or through having sex with a drug-using partner (57 percent). About 38 percent of infections can be traced back to lack of condom use, having anal intercourse, or if the woman had genital sores which increased her exposure to an infected partner. In most cases women are more likely to contract the disease from a male partner, than the other way around. Transmission between lesbian partners is relatively rare.
The risk of catching HIV from an infected partner is 20 percent - if you have unprotected sex for a sustained period of time.
Where Did HIV Originate?
Scientists have narrowed the origins of the virus down to a type of chimpanzee found in West Africa. They think that the chimps, which have their own version of the disease called simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), most likely transmitted the virus to humans who hunted and ate their meat. Over decades the virus slowly spread across Africa and eventually to the rest of the world.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Women should talk to their doctor about HIV testing if they have any of the following problems:
• Recurrent yeast infections.
• Severe genital herpes.
• Difficult to treat genital warts.
• Persistent pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
When a person becomes infected by HIV their body develops HIV antibodies - these are substances the body creates to destroy the invader. A HIV test involves testing for the presence of these antibodies.
When To Test: It can take time for the body to produce enough antibodies for a test to detect, and this ‘window period’ varies from person to person. Most tests in the U.S. are designed to detect signs within 2 to 8 weeks of infection (average 25 days). 97 percent of people will develop detectable antibodies within 3 months. As there is a small chance that it can take longer than 3 months, you should consider a follow up test 3 months later.
Other HIV Tests: The P24 antigen test (tests for the substances that trigger the production of antibodies) and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction test) which checks the genetic material of HIV rather than the antibodies to the virus. If your test result (regardless of which test you chose) comes back positive, a diagnosis will only be made based on a second confirmatory test.
Home Tests: It is also possible to buy a home-test kit for HIV. One recent product, which is FDA-approved for home sampling, is the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test. The user takes an oral swab, and places it in a specially prepared vial that comes with the kit. The result is ready in 20 to 40 minutes. The manufacturers do point out that it is not quite as accurate as a test carried out by a clinician. The advantage is you can perform the test in the privacy of your own home.
What Is The Treatment For HIV/AIDs?
Currently there is no cure for AIDS, so the aim of treatment is to use drugs to prevent HIV from spreading in the body and to minimize health complications for as long as possible. Newer drug combinations are effective in halting the progression of AIDS and in controlling infections. However, as these treatments can be physically taxing, highly expensive and the HIV virus develops resistance to them over time - there is no permanent solution. There are several main classes of medications used for treating HIV positive patients:
Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTI): Interrupt the virus from duplicating.
Protease Inhibitors (PI): Interrupt the virus at later stages in the disease.
Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART): The so-called anti-HIV cocktail, it is a highly aggressive therapy involving several different types of medications.
Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTI): Block the infection of new cells.
The exact combination of drugs prescribed will be determined by a skilled consultant on an individual basis.
How Can HIV Be Prevented?
1. Get tested. Everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested at least once for HIV. If you are at increased risk, test once a year at a STD clinic near you. Read also about recommended health screenings for women.
2. Limit the number of your partners, thus reducing your overall risk on infection.
3. Practice safe sex, read STD prevention tips.
4. Never inject drugs. If you are an addict, always use clean needles.
5. Men who are circumcised are less likely to get infected.
6. Seek medical treatment immediately if you think you were exposed to HIV. Some drugs can prevent infection if they are started quickly. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis.
7. Be aware of the most common symptoms of STDs. Other STDs increase your risk of catching HIV if exposed.