What actually is HIV/AIDS?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is funnily enough a virus which affects the immune system. It shows flu-like symptoms at first infection and then nothing for around 10 years, and then turns into AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS and HIV themselves do not kill, but the damage they do to the immune system allows usually harmless diseases to.
You can get HIV through infected bodily fluids that get into your bloodstream, for example when you have unprotected sex. This can even be when a HIV infected mother breastfeeds her child. To stop infection, it’s safe to always use condoms and never share needles/razors (this is generally safe anyway, infection wise). More than 95% of HIV infections are in developing countries, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa; where condoms are generally not approved of and healthcare is constrained. The length of time between HIV and AIDS can vary due to many factors, but most predominantly your access to good healthcare. HIV is also more predominant in developing countries as sexual health education isn’t effective, so HIV education and more importantly tests are limited.
How does HIV affect the body?
HIV is a virus, so can’t multiply by itself. Instead, viruses have to latch onto a ‘host cell’ and use their machinery to do so. The cells HIV uses are the helper-T cells, which alerts the rest of the immune system when there’s foreign material like bacteria/infections. Since HIV stops these from working, the immune system can’t effectively fight it as most of it doesn’t know it’s there. HIV keeps using the immune system to take over and kills the helper T-cells when it’s finished, which slowly deteriorates the body.
How do I know if I have HIV / AIDS?
The symptoms of HIV include-
- Severe flu-like symptoms
- Sore throat
- Rash on the chest
- Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
- Muscle aches and joint pain
These last for a few days to a week, and if you’re concerned you can take a test at any NHS sexual health clinic, charity testing services, your GP or at a pharmacy. To read more about testing, I’d recommend the NAT’s website . The later symptoms of HIV include-
- Weight loss
- Oral yeast infection (thrush)
- Shingles (herpes zoster)
After however many years, HIV then turns into AIDS. This is diagnosed when someone with HIV has a helper T-cell count below a certain level or when they show certain symptoms, such as:
- Soaking night sweats
- Recurring fever
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
- Persistent, unexplained fatigue
- Weight loss
- Skin rashes or bumps
Does it have a cure or vaccine?
There’s currently no cure, but very rarely some people’s bodies naturally suppress the virus without medication. You can put off the transition of HIV to AIDS with antiretrovirals drugs which stop the virus replicating. Once HIV treatment is started, you will probably need to take the medication for the rest of your life. For the treatment to be continuously effective, it will need to be taken regularly every day. Some people can never get AIDS and end up dying with HIV due to these drugs.
If you become aware that you’ve slept with someone with HIV in the past three days, anti-HIV medication can stop infection. It is a month-long treatment with side effects, but the positives outweigh the negatives realistically.
What’s the history behind HIV and AIDS?
There are many theories behind how humans came to get the virus, but the only accepted theory is that HIV crossed from chimps to humans in the 1920’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Monkeys had SIV, HIV that affects the immune systems of monkeys/apes. Hunters got SIV which mutated to HIV-1 when they killed and ate them, or when their blood got into cuts or wounds.
Why do people associate HIV with gay people?
People sometimes say that HIV started in the 1980s in the USA, but in fact this was just when people first became aware of HIV and it was officially recognised as a new health condition. It affected a lot of the gay community as it’s much easier to get HIV through anal sex, and the as community is very small. The reality is that there are less gay and bi guys than there are straight men and women. So when you’re meeting a guy for casual sex, the pool of people you have to choose from is smaller. This makes gay and bi guys much more closely connected, sexually, than the rest of the population. It also allows HIV and other STI’s to spread quickly among them.
Sadly, this made for the created of GRID- ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ but this was dropped early 80’s. It was dropped as people realised that heterosexual people were also infected, and that there was no official ‘gay lifestyle’.In the 80’s, the media skewed HIV to be the ‘gay plague’. This was due to the lethality and mystery of the virus, and all anyone knew about it was that it affected a lot of the community. On the other hand, it was also blown up as the virus had everything that sells newspapers. Scandals, sex,expose and theories sold false headlines such as “The Gay Bug”, “Cough can spread AIDS, warns Doc” and “AIDS: Three British Airways crew die’. The key themes of these were-
- The confusion over its source
- Kick the gays while they’re down e.g. “AIDS is the wrath of God, says vicar” (The Sun)
- The incredible infectivity speculation
- AIDS is everywhere are there’s no cure
It allowed the public to justify their fear of gay people, and moreover to conclude that AIDS was God’s punishment for being gay. The public saw the community as a threat to innocent people following the media coverage. Nowadays, HIV is seen less as the ‘gay plague’ due to high-income countries sexual education and healthcare. In developing countries such as Sub-Saharan Africa, this is not the same story. Read more about the epidemic here.
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