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Updated 07 May 2013

What is HIV/Aids?

HIV attacks and gradually destroys the immune system, which protects the body against infections. The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

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The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). HIV attacks and gradually destroys the immune system, which protects the body against infections.

Aids develops during the last stages of HIV infection. Aids is not a single illness, but the whole clinical picture (a syndrome) that occurs when the immune system fails entirely. A person with a failing immune system is susceptible to a variety of infections that are very unlikely to occur in people with healthy immune systems. These are called opportunistic infections because they take advantage of the body's weakened immune system. Certain types of cancers also occur when the immune system fails.

It may take years for a person's immune system to deteriorate to such an extent that the person becomes ill and a diagnosis of Aids is made. During this time (which can last as long as 15 years or possibly even longer), a person may look and feel perfectly well. This explains why so many people are unaware that they are infected with HIV. However, even though they feel healthy, they can still transmit the virus to others.

More than 90% of people living with HIV are in developing countries, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for two thirds of all the HIV-infected people in the world. Unlike Western countries, where HIV has initially affected predominantly homosexual men, in Africa and developing countries HIV is usually spread by sex between men and women (heterosexual sex).

Research into HIV/Aids is ongoing and new information is emerging rapidly. There are drugs that can dramatically slow down the disease in an infected person. These drugs need to be taken in various combinations in order to be effective. Also, individuals on the drugs must be monitored by medical personnel trained in the use of antiretroviral therapy because these drugs can potentially cause serious side effects if not taken correctly and if the individual is not monitored properly. However, there is no cure for Aids.

There is also currently no preventative vaccine against HIV infection. At this time the only effective strategy for controlling the spread of HIV is prevention through individual behaviour change, spreading the correct information about preventing HIV infection and the use of condoms and other safe sex measures. Other measures, which should be taken by a country's health system, include screening of blood products and the prevention of infection of patients through contaminated medical equipment. Mother to child infection can be reduced by a short course of an anti-HIV drug given to the mother and new-born baby at the time of delivery. (See "treatment")

(Reviewed by Dr Diana Hardie, clinical virologist, National Health Laboratory Service and University of Cape Town, July 2010, Additional review by Dr Avron Urison, 2013)

 
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