It’s December- it is the holiday season, and is associated with fun and fervor! But this month is also known as AIDS Awareness month. HIV is the acronym for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it is a virus that damages the body’s immune system and infects and destroys the CD4 cells or T-cells. Even with all the advancements in science, no cure for HIV has been found until now. If left untreated HIV can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). It was first detected in 1959, and comes from a strain of virus from chimpanzee, and was first detected in Africa before it progressed to the entire world.
There are 3 stages associated with the progression of HIV:
1. Acute stage
2. Latent or chronic stage
A healthy adult has 500-1500 cubic millimetre of CD4, but anyone with less than 200 cubic mm CD4 in the blood is suffering from AIDS. With proper adherence to treatment, a person can have HIV and lead a near-normal life without ever acquiring AIDS. Most people with HIV don’t die from it, but from an opportunistic disease in which the body becomes more susceptible due to compromised immunity. Such life-threatening diseases are pneumonia, tuberculosis, meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and cancer like lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.
HIV can be transmitted by direct contact to body fluids like blood, semen, rectal and vaginal fluid, and breast milk. It can spread if a healthy person has:
· Unprotected vaginal or anal sex
· Sharing needles while getting an injection or tattoo
· During pregnancy, childbirth from mother to child
The period between a person getting infected with HIV and it becoming detectable in the blood is known as the HIV window period and it is generally between 23-90 days. Tests like the antibody test, antigen/antibody test and Nucleic Acid test (NAT) are used in the detection of HIV.
Let’s debunk some myths and spread a positive environment:
HIV does NOT spread with:
· Direct skin contact like hugging, shaking hands or kissing
· Sharing food or drinks
· Sharing towels or bed
· Mosquito bite doesn’t spread HIV
HIV can be contracted by anyone, it is a false impression that only gay men, transgender, and African Americans are the only people who can get infected.
Many HIV infected women feel they may be called dirty and the near ones will stop loving them. It is a myth, HIV can be contracted from having unprotected sex with a partner. Your close ones will love for who you are and not a disease.
Symptoms that should not be ignored:
During the acute stage, the symptoms can often be mistaken for the flu or other viral infections:
· Fever and chills
· Night sweats and severe fatigue
· Swollen lymph nodes
· Head and body aches.
· Nausea and diarrhea
· Skin rash and oral thrush
The first stage lasts only a few months and after that, a person enters the latency phase, and the disease can go undetected for years. Due to the non-specific symptoms, a person can unknowingly transmit it to another person.
Though symptoms of HIV in men and women are the same, yet there are some specific symptoms that pertain to women only:
· Change in the menstrual cycle and in menstrual flow
· Severe PMS
· Pelvic Inflammatory disease- an infection of the uterus, ovaries and Fallopian tubes
· Recurring Vaginal yeast infection
· Sexually transmitted infection
Treatment and preventive measures for HIV
If you believe you have been exposed to HIV, you can take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) medication within 72 hours. If you have been sexually active with multiple partners you should have regular screening.
Always remember to have safe sex using condoms. Using PrEP medication regularly can prevent HIV by being transmitted sexually or through injection drug use by 99% and 74% respectively. Talk to your doctor today.
Antiretroviral therapies are prescribed medication that prevents the virus from replicating, and the level of virus diminishes until they become undetectable, but it is not a cure but a method of control.
Living with HIV positive partner
Many women who have been diagnosed with HIV often have a successful relationship with a partner who isn’t affected by this disease. Such couples are known as serodiscordant couples. WHO recommends couple testing and counselling. By using condoms and being on antiretroviral medication, you can have a healthy sex life with your spouse.
Not all babies born to HIV positive women are infected by the disease. With proper medication and consultation with your gynaecologist, you can safely deliver a healthy baby. The risk is less than 2% in such cases. Though, breastfeeding is strictly prohibited.
Being young and HIV positive
Being diagnosed with HIV at an early age can be extremely traumatizing and is attached to severe stigma from the people, who may question your life choices. It has been found that of 40 million people affected with HIV, 3 million people were children below the age of 15. But remember your loved ones will love and support you, no matter what happens.
Not everyone wants to disclose their illness to the people, as they might fear rejection, harassment, and gossip. The choice to inform is entirely yours. But you should always come clean to your sexual partner and you can always have a happy and fulfilling relationship. Remember if you are undetectable, then you are untransmittable.
Embrace the disease
Michelle told Cosmopolitan that “Once I got handle on my own self-created stigma by seeking out information and resources designed to educate on HIV, I was able to begin to live my life with hope and understanding.” It is extremely important to accept the reality and approach a doctor and to start regular medication and adhere to the treatment plan.
There are many support groups, so it’s important to seek help as and when required. Research the disease and ask relevant questions to your doctors. Many women like Gina break down after being diagnosed with HIV, “I cried, was ashamed, and became afraid. I thought I was going to die.” With the advancement in treatment, life expectancy has increased considerably. In 1990s life expectancy after diagnosis was about 15 years for a 20-year-old but as of 2011, it has improved to over 50 years and now it has become normal.
Lead a normal life, and incorporate a healthy diet and regular exercise to your diet. Avoid tobacco and drug abuse, don’t eat undercooked or raw meat, and stay away from animal litter. You should report any new symptom to your physician.
Being diagnosed with HIV brings into focus that life is short and unpredictable. It brings along with it a certain sense of urgency. Don’t let the negativity curb your spirit. You are like any other person who is suffering from diabetes or thyroid. Every disease untreated can be life-threatening, so don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. On the cusp of the end of the decade, a lot has changed, the stigma and the fear have lessened, but it’s still prevalent. Proper knowledge and awareness can change this.
We can hope that in the next decade, a more permanent cure for HIV can be found!
“Life is not over. You may just have to move a little differently. But your worth doesn’t change. And never let anyone make you feel that way.” —Ciarra, 31