What is HIV?
HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is a disease that compromises the immune system, gradually leaving the victim defenceless against other diseases. The virus attacks white blood cells called T-helpers or CD4s and replicates itself inside these.
Different strains of HIV exist and these can coexist in one infected individual. HIV resides in bodily fluids such as semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk. Sweat or urine however are not carriers of the virus and therefore HIV cannot be transmitted through these bodily excretions.
A person can be infected with HIV through:
- Vaginal and anal sex without condoms –The most common form of transmission from which 95% of cases in the UK in 2013 resulted.
- Breastfeeding — Infected mothers pass the virus to their babies through breast milk.
- Injections by contaminated needles or other equipment that pass through skin
- Unprotected oral sex and sex toy sharing although the risks are very low with 1 in 5,000 chances of transmission
HIV is incurable but people who are diagnosed early on and get good medical treatment can live long lives with the disease.
As of 2014, about 103,700 cases have been diagnosed in the U.K. About 60% of these cases fall within the age range of 35-54 and the remaining 40% are distributed among the young and senior group. The highest incidence of HIV in the U.K. is among two groups: gay and bisexual men and black heterosexual men. Sadly, there are perhaps numerous cases undiagnosed simply because of lack of knowledge.
It is easy to miss the onset of HIV because the early symptoms mimic those of the flu. Symptoms such as joint pain, fever, sore throat, and body rash appear 2-6 weeks after contraction of the disease. After this period, the symptoms disappear for years; that is why symptoms can be brushed aside as simply indicators of common influenza.
HIV can be asymptomatic for as long as ten years. The infected person can actually feel healthy and well during this time period. This is a major reason why there are numerous individuals who remain undiagnosed. The asymptomatic period is dangerous because the afflicted person does not know that his immune system is gradually being damaged to the point where the body is left defenceless to all sorts of illnesses. In the advanced stages of HIV, the patient may experience:
- Weight loss
- Recurring infections
- Extreme fatigue
- Swollen lymph glands
- Dangerous and life-threatening diseases
- Skin disorders such as red or purple blotches, rashes, etc.
- Night sweats
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Sores in the mouth, genitals, and anus
What is AIDS?
AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome is an illness that attacks an HIV patient towards the last stage of the HIV infection when the immune system has been rendered helpless against the onslaught of various illnesses. AIDS is therefore euphemistically known as advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV. Because an AIDS patient has no defence against disease, death can result from infections from other illnesses such as pneumonia, cancer, and tuberculosis. Even mental illness such as depression and dementia can set in with AIDS. Any sort of illness can invade the body at the AIDS point because the body has been left wide open to health invaders.
The Psychological Impact of HIV and AIDS
Despite the decreasing numbers fatalities because of adequate treatment and increased public awareness, HIV and AIDS remain highly stigmatised diseases. An HIV diagnosis on the outset is highly traumatic as it not only means that one is harbouring an incurable and possibly fatal illness but it also means the likely possibility of becoming a social pariah.
The stigma of HIV and AIDS has left many feeling isolated and very lonely. Fear of rejection from potential partners hound many HIV-positive people and these feelings are of especial concern to infected adolescents growing into adulthood. Shame and embarrassment are also other factors that positively diagnosed individuals feel as the disease is still socially viewed as proof of immorality. As a result, HIV patients have higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies.
Depression in itself causes physical problems with HIV patients. Depressed people are less likely to stick to their medical treatments, a phenomenon lessening their chances of being able to live long, normal lives with the disease.
An HIV patient does not need to disclose their condition to just anyone; but he or she must have at least one supportive person they trust to talk to about their situation. There are also organized HIV-support groups to touch base with other people afflicted with the same condition. Talking to other HIV-positive people can dampen feelings of isolation and rejection. In addition, professional support from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker may greatly help your mental and emotional condition.
When an HIV patient’s mental and emotional health is addressed, their adherence to their anti-retroviral treatments, reduction of high risk behaviours, and their social engagements become remarkably improved. Quality of life for an HIV-positive individual need not be severely compromised as long as he takes care of his physical, mental, and emotional well-being.