Thirty six million people live with HIV worldwide and there are more than a million AIDS related deaths every year. Dr Zak discusses advances in one of the biggest health problems of our time

WITH 18 to 24 November designated National HIV Testing Week, and December 1 as World AIDS Day, it is clear that perhaps the most stigmatised illness ever has now obtained the coverage it so needs. Yet despite it being 20 years since the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign, fears and lack of understanding about HIV, as well as prejudice towards sufferers remains an issue, even in such progressive times.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a blood borne virus, which is transmitted through unprotected sex, sharing contaminated needles and other drug equipment, and before testing of blood donations became routine in the early 1990s, some people sadly caught HIV from blood transfusions. You cannot get HIV from normal social contact, including shaking hands, cuddling, public toilet seats or even mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

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If exposed to HIV, many people will develop flu like illness within two to six weeks, as the body tries to fight the infection. However, after this, there may be no symptoms whatsoever, sometimes for more than ten years. Unfortunately, during this time, HIV progressively damages the immune system, the body’s natural defence against infection and cancer. When this destruction reaches a critical level, the person will develop one of 20 or more diseases, which are said to be AIDS defining illnesses. Sadly from here, progression to ill health and death can be very rapid. Also, people who are unaware of their HIV status may unknowingly infect others.

THANKFULLY, the invention of anti-retroviral therapy, (ART) has revolutionised the treatment of HIV to such an extent that if diagnosed early and medication started promptly, many sufferers will not go on to develop AIDS, and many today can expect to have the same life expectancy as someone without HIV. The aim of ART is to reduce the level of HIV in the blood, known as the viral load, until it cannot be detected. This prevents further damage to the immune system, as well as greatly reducing the chances of HIV transmission; enabling infected mothers to have normal deliveries and even to breast feed their babies without passing on the virus.

Although there is no cure for or vaccine to prevent HIV at present, what was once a death sentence has been transformed into a very manageable condition. Avoiding high risk encounters is always advised. The Tag line of this year’s Awareness Campaign, “Give HIV the Finger” refers to the fact that you can now be tested for the virus with a simple finger prick blood test, or a saliva sample, with a same day result. Any positive result would be need to be verified with a further test, but with Sexual Health Centres offering walk-in clinics, and self-test kits available to purchase online, knowing your status is easier than ever. A negative test will put your mind at rest, but a positive result, if found early, is not the death sentence it once was, and will help you and your loved ones get the best treatment and support, both physical and emotional.

Useful websites: www.nat.org.uk, www.tht.org.uk, www.unaids.org