HIV/AIDS: What is it?

The global community last week observed the 2019 World AIDS Day. The annual event – named for December 1 every year, since 1988 – is aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) as well as recognising the roles of individuals, scientists, governments, and organisations in the fight against the scourge of the disease around the world.

 

The contemporary history of HIV epidemic dates back to 1981, when the Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first observed in two American young gay men with a compromised immune system. Although the condition later became known as AIDS; it`s causes and modes of transmission were not elucidated then.

 

HIV attacks cells in the immune system – our body’s natural defense mechanism against diseases – and destroys a type of White Blood Cells (WBC) called T-helper cells – and makes copies of itself inside the cells. The most advanced stage of HIV infection is known as AIDS and a person is said to have AIDS when his or her immune system is too weak to fight-off the HIV infection, and consequently develop certain symptoms and illnesses which if left untreated would lead to death.

 

However, a person can have HIV infection without AIDS because of the long delay between the time of HIV infection and onset of AIDS, hence the number of HIV-positive people in most populations are more than the number of people living with AIDS. In the absence of treatment, however, nearly everyone who is HIV-positive today could later develop AIDS.

 

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), about 37.9 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV, of which 1.7 million are children under the age of 15 years. Also, the Nigeria National HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS), which was released in March 2019, indicated a national HIV prevalence rate of 1.4% among adults in Nigeria, aged between 15 and 49 years.

 

The transmission of HIV infection and how it spreads is not difficult to explain. The infection can be contracted through unprotected sexual behaviours and practices; coming into direct contact with bodily fluids from a person who is HIV-positive and/or infected needles and syringes. Most HIV transmission from person to person occurs through unprotected sexual behaviours.

 

Hence, individuals simply need to stop having unprotected sex and avoid sharing needles or syringes, among other risky behaviours. There`s no cure to HIV yet. But the use of Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP) – a course of drugs taken by someone who is HIV-negative before or after potential exposure to the virus – is a way for people who have been accidentally exposed to HIV such as through sex or rape to prevent the virus from establishing a permanent infection in the body.

 

The use of PreP following exposure to HIV is a form of secondary prevention against the disease, which has been proved to reduce the incidence of HIV infections globally. Thus, the 2007 National Guidelines for HIV/AIDS Treatment and Care recommends the use of PrEP following exposure of an individual to potentially infectious body fluids in occupational and non-occupational settings in Nigeria.

 

Olagunju Adewuyi is a student of Physiology at the Federal University of Technology (FUTA), Akure, Nigeria; he is a 2019 fellow of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN). This article is supported by public engagement grants from the Wellcome Trust. However, the views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect the of Wellcome.

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