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What is HIV and AIDS?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system and can lead to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

When HIV enters the body, it infects the CD4 cells, (also known as T cells), which help to fight infection and disease. The virus destroys or impairs the function of the infected immune cells, leading to progressive deterioration of the immune system, and making the person more susceptible to becoming extremely sick with even the simplest of illnesses.

AIDS is considered the last phase of the HIV infection and the most severe. It is usually diagnosed when the CD4 cell count goes below 200 per cubic millimeter (mm) of blood – a healthy immune system will have a CD4 cell count between 500-1800 per cubic mm of blood.

The number of new HIV cases is declining globally, as is the number of AIDS-related deaths, however, there is not yet a cure for HIV, meaning that awareness and education are still critical to reducing the rates of infection.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is passed on through certain body fluids, where it can exist high concentrations in an infected person. These fluids are blood, semen, vaginal secretions, anal secretions and breast milk.

While it can exist in other body fluids, it cannot be passed on through the following body fluids: sweat, tears and urine.

HIV can be passed on by:

  • 01Unprotected vaginal or anal sex with an infected person.
  • 02Oral sex (especially if a person has ulcers or gum problems) with an infected person.
  • 03Transfusion of blood or its components from an infected person.
  • 04Sharing needles for injecting drugs or tattooing with an infected person.
  • 05Sharing sharp instruments like nail cutters or scissors with an infected person.
  • 06Mother to baby transmission during pregnancy or childbirth.
  • 07Breast feeding by an HIV positive mother.

HIV CANNOT passed on by:

  • 01Hugging, kissing or holding hands.
  • 02Sharing a bath or a swimming pool.
  • 03Sharing a toilet seat or towels.
  • 04Sharing food or utensils.
  • 05Insects bites.

How is HIV detected?

Antibodies in the blood will show if a person has been infected with HIV and these can be detected using a blood test. However, the body needs 1-3 months (up to 6 months) to develop the antibodies against the HIV. As such, a blood test in the first three months of infection will give a negative result, even though the person is already infected with the virus and can infect others. Generally, after 3 months the blood test would be positive and this leads to the diagnosis of HIV.

Treatment can help to manage and control HIV and prolong the onset of AIDS. However, if left untreated, the majority of people infected with HIV will develop AIDS within 5-10 years of being infected.

Exposed to HIV: What to do

Anyone who believes they may have been exposed to HIV, should:

  • 01Go to a healthcare provider and get the necessary counseling.
  • 02Take a blood test to detect the HIV antibodies. If the test result is negative, repeat the test again after 3 months.

According to standards of screening for HIV by Department of Health - Abu Dhabi (DoH), a blood sample first undergoes a sensitive test called ELISA. Any sample that tests positive for a second time will undergo a confirmatory test called Western Blot.

What does a positive test result mean?

Although HIV remains a very serious infection and one which cannot yet be cured, people with HIV and AIDS are now living increasingly longer and healthier lives as a result of the continuing advancements in treatment.

As with many conditions, early diagnosis can benefit treatment and for a person simply knowing their HIV status can enable them to get the necessary support and treatment they need. It also ensures they can take measures to prevent infecting others with the virus.

Living with HIV: What to remember

For those living with HIV, here are some important steps to follow:

  • 01Adhere to the advice of your doctor and attend all scheduled appointments.
  • 02Take any medicine, exactly as prescribed.
  • 03Immediately inform your doctor of any complaints or concerns.
  • 04Do not stop ANY medication without consulting your doctor first.
  • 05Get specific immunizations as advised by your doctor.
  • 06Stop smoking and stop using any medication not prescribed by your doctor.
  • 07Follow a healthy eating plan to keep your weight and strength up.
  • 08Exercise regularly to stay strong and fit.
  • 09Get enough sleep and rest.

What are the symptoms of AIDS?

As the immune system deteriorates, the body becomes increasingly susceptible to many different life-threatening opportunistic infections, these include tuberculosis (TB), which is the most common cause of death for those with HIV or AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis C, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis and cryptosporidiosis.

These infections can lead to the following symptoms:

  • 01High fever
  • 02Profuse sweating
  • 03Diarrhea
  • 04Weight loss
  • 05Enlarged lymph nodes
  • 06Skin rashes or itching
  • 07Changes in vision
  • 08Mouth thrush and sores
  • 09Trouble swallowing
  • 10Breathing problems

AIDS patients can also present with some cancers that further deteriorate their health status.

What is the treatment for HIV or AIDS?

Medication: The drugs used to treat HIV or AIDS are called antiretroviral medicines - HIV is classed as a retrovirus. These medicines are very powerful in controlling the virus and slowing the progression of the infection, but they do not cure it.

Treatment regimen: The recommended treatment for HIV is a combination of three or more medicines, and this regimen is called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART).

When does treatment begin?

This is determined on an individual basis. After a clinical assessment and evaluating factors such CD4 cell count and viral load, a decision will be made by the patient’s doctor as to when or if antiretroviral medications should be started.

Generally, antiretroviral treatment (ART) in DoH facilities is started when the CD4 count drops below 300 per cubic mm of blood.

How to protect against HIV?

There are several steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of being exposed to or infected with HIV. These include:

  • 01Stay in a faithful relationship with a single uninfected partner.
  • 02Use male or female condoms correctly each time you have sex.
  • 03Do not share needles or syringes with anyone else.
  • 04Do not share equipment used to prepare drugs for injection.
  • 05Do not share razors or toothbrushes with others.
  • 06Do not share any sex instruments.

How to protect others if you have HIV?

Those living with HIV, should take the following steps to protect others from being infected with the virus:

  • 01Tell your partner you have HIV.
  • 02Avoid having sex, but if you do have sex, ALWAYS use a condom correctly. (Condom use does not guarantee 100% protection.)
  • 03Use protection during oral sex. A condom or dental dam (a square piece of latex used by dentists) can be used. Do not reuse them.
  • 04Do not share sharp instruments with others.
  • 05Do not donate blood, plasma or organs.
  • 06Pregnant women should talk immediately to their doctor. Following a treatment program can greatly reduce a baby’s chance of contracting HIV.

Available help

If you are diagnosed with HIV or you develop AIDS, do not hesitate to seek help from your healthcare provider or DoH Communicable Diseases Centers in your region for follow up and advice. Information will be provided with full confidentiality. Psychological and social support will also be provided as required.

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