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STI & STD Lowdown: What Are HIV And AIDs?

In our next instalment of our weekly sexual health series, we are focusing on two different infections. Many people conflate the two, when in fact they are two separate things. First, let’s look at HIV.

What is it?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys the CD4 cells in the body, which help fight illness. If somebody with HIV does not get treatment, their number of CD4 cells will get so low that they won’t be able to fight sickness, which can be a threat to their life. This is the most severe form of an HIV infection and what is commonly known as having AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

A person with AIDS is very vulnerable to cancer and other life-threatening infections like pneumonia. Since the 1990s, there have been treatments which will not cure the person completely, but help them in living a relatively normal life. However, life with HIV is not easy, therefore it should be avoided.

How can you get it?

The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids and breast milk. The main way of getting it is through unprotected penetrative or anal sex, with someone who already has it. It is also possible to get HIV from sharing needles with someone who has it, or through birth from a parent who has it. You can NOT get HIV, from kissing, licking, using the same toilet seat or towel.

How do you know if you have it?

We can have HIV for years and not notice it. It does usually not have any recognisable symptoms.

A high number of people have it without even knowing it, so it doesn’t hurt to get checked if you ever had sex without a condom. A recent ECDC/WHO report found that over the past ten years, the rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections in this region has risen by 52 percent from 12 in every 100,000 of population in 2007 to 18.2 for every 100,000 in 2016.

What does the test involve?

It involves either a blood sample, or a swab from inside of your mouth.

History of Aids

The origin of HIV was traced back by scientists in 1999 to a type of chimpanzee in West Africa. They believe, that the chimpanzee version of HIV, called simian immunodeficiency virus or SIV, was most likely transmitted to humans through them hunting these chimpanzees for their meat and coming in contact with infected blood and it then mutated to the HIV we know today. The virus then spread across Africa over decades and later came to other parts of the world.

The earliest recorded case of HIV in a human was found in a blood sample collected in 1959 from man in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cause of his infection is not known. However, it is believed that the first transmission of SIV into HIV in humans, led to the global pandemic in Kinshasa in the 1920s.

The virus might have spread from Kinshasa along roads, railways and rivers via migrants and the sex trade. Then in the 1960s, HIV spread from Africa to Haiti and the Caribbean, where it then moved from the Caribbean to New York City around 1970 and then to San Francisco later in the decade. International travel helped the virus spread from the US to the rest of the globe.

In Ireland, according to the World Health Organisation report of 2017, around 71% of new HIV diagnoses come from people originating from outside the country. The biggest age group to be diagnosed with HIV is between 30-39 years.

Although HIV arrived in the US around the 1970s, it only came to the public’s attention in the early 1980s.

In 1981, a report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that five previously healthy homosexual men became infected with Pneumocystis pneumonia. This type of pneumonia, the CDC noted, has almost never affected people with not compromised immune systems.

In 1982, The New York Times published an article about the immune system disorder, which had by that time affected 335 people, and killed 136 of them. Because the disease appeared to affect mostly homosexual men, officials initially called it a gay-related immune deficiency or GRID.

Even though the CDC had discovered all major routes of the disease’s transmission, and that female partners of AIDS-positive men could be infected as well, the public in 1983 considered AIDS a ‘gay disease’. It was even called the ‘gay plague’ for many years.

By the end of 1982, AIDS cases were also reported in Europe.

In 1984, the cause of AIDS, the HIV virus was identified by researchers and the first commercial blood test for HIV was licensed in the US in 1985.

Thanks to new medications and therapies introduced in the late 80s and 90s, caused HIV-related death and hospitalisations to drop drastically in 1995. At the end of 2015, some 36.7 million people were living with HIV/AIDS worldwide and 1.1 million died of AIDS-related diseases in that year. Sub-Saharan Africa is still the most severely affected region, accounting for nearly 70% of the world’s current HIV cases.

Still here? Check this out: STI & STD Lowdown: What Is Gonorrhea?