AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Generally speaking, for those who are HIV-positive, there could come a time when the body’s immune system is sufficiently weakened that you are no longer able to fight off opportunistic infections.
However, as long as people taking antiretrovirals do so daily and maintain a healthy lifestyle, they are unlikely to progress into the AIDS stage of the disease.
AIDS as such is not a disease – it merely describes the stage of development when the HIV has progressed to such an extent that the body’s CD4 count drops to below a count of 200. This in turn can make the person susceptible to various infections known as opportunistic infections, known as such because of the time when they ‘attack’ (see below).
Read: What is Aids?
CD4 cells are white blood cells that fight viral and bacterial infections. They are also sometimes called T-cells. HIV targets and infiltrates CD4 cells in the human body, tricking the cells into making more copies of HIV. In short, it is this mechanism that makes HIV such a tricky virus.
A blood test can reveal what the number of CD4 cells are in a cubic millimetre of your blood. Normally, there should be between 500 and 1500. If your CD4 count is decreasing, it means that your immune system is becoming less effective at fighting off infections. Your immune system is still effective at 500 but there is cause for concern when your CD4 drops below 500.
If your CD4 count has dropped to below 200, it means you have AIDS. However, the CD4 count, while important as a gauge, is not as important as the viral load. A viral load test counts the number of HIV particles in a sample of blood. Typically, if your viral load is high, your CD4 count will be low—making you more vulnerable to opportunistic infections. The result is expressed as the number of ‘copies’ of HIV RNA per ml (millilitre) of blood. It is now generally accepted that 10 000 copies per ml or less is considered low and 50 000 copies per ml and above is considered high.
Read: The difference between CD4 count and viral load
A safe viral load is below 40 copies per cubic m of blood. It has now been proven that this remarkably decreases the chance of an HIV-positive person infecting their negative partner.
Some of the opportunistic infections and conditions commonly associated with AIDS include the following:
- Candidiasis (thrush)
- Several viruses, fungi and protozoa that cause brain inflammation
- Cervical cancer
- Herpes simplex
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Salmonella septicaemia
- Protozoa and bacteria that infect the digestive system
However, various treatments, such as antiretroviral drugs can raise the CD4 count again to above 500. It is essential that you follow the doctor’s instructions to the letter on taking these drugs, as they can and do save lives. Also have your CD4 count checked regularly.
It is also important to note that when people contract an opportunistic infection, the initial disease becomes harder to treat because of drug interactions. Health care professionals wouldn’t, for instance, treat TB and AIDS at the same time because of the drug load.
But at the same time it is also extremely important that you live a healthy lifestyle in order to give your body a fighting chance against HIV. It is also crucial that you follow steps to reduce your risk of exposure to opportunistic infections.
Read: An end to Aids?
Healthy lifestyle recommendations
Make sure that you get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation puts all the systems in your body, including the immune system, under tremendous stress. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
Get some exercise. Even a daily walk of 30 minutes can make a huge difference to your health. Check with your doctor before embarking on any strenuous exercise programme.
Find a way to deal with stress. This could be something such as yoga or meditation, or a hobby – whatever works for you. High stress levels make you more prone to opportunistic infections.
Eat nutritious food. Now more than ever your body needs healthy foods. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables (5 portions a day), some daily protein (meat, fish, chicken, nuts), unrefined carbohydrates (brown bread, brown rice), and some Omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish) and dairy (but stay away from unpasteurised products). Cut down on the junk food, the alcohol, and high-fat options that place stress on your body.
No smoking or doing drugs. The first is legal and the second is not, but both of these lower your body’s ability to fight off infections. Your body just doesn’t need the added stress of having to deal with these substances.
Ways to prevent opportunistic infections:
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Get regular vaccinations, against things such as the flu virus.
- Avoid raw or undercooked meals. Wash and cook all foods.
- Avoid visiting people who are ill as they might infect you.
- Disinfect all cooking implements and surfaces.
- Be aware that germs lurk on gym equipment, lift buttons and hand railings.
- Always remember safe sex rules.
- Don’t clean cat litter trays or clean up dog faeces without using gloves.
(References: WebMD.com: stayingalivefoundation.org; Health24.com; aids.gov)