HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. They are two distinct conditions that are related but have different stages, symptoms, treatments, and transmission modes. It's essential to understand the difference between the two to prevent misperceptions, stigmatization, and discrimination towards people living with HIV/AIDS.
HIV is a virus that infects the body's immune system, particularly the CD4+ T cells, which are responsible for defending the body against infections and diseases. HIV targets and destroys these cells, making the immune system weaker and unable to fight off opportunistic infections and cancers that a healthy immune system would usually resist. This process can take years, during which a person with HIV may not show any external symptoms.
Unlike some other viruses that the immune system can eliminate or control, HIV has a unique ability to integrate its genetic material into the host cell's DNA and replicate continuously, forming new viruses that can infect other cells. HIV transmission occurs through the exchange of specific bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk, and rectal mucus, which contain high concentrations of the virus. Therefore, HIV can be passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles, breastfeeding, and mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
Untreated HIV infection can lead to AIDS, which is a syndrome rather than a virus. AIDS is a collection of severe, life-threatening illness that results from the damage to the immune system caused by untreated HIV. The term "acquired" means that the condition is not inherited or caused by a genetic defect but acquired after birth. The term "syndrome" refers to the combination of symptoms that appear when the immune system is severely weakened.
To be diagnosed with AIDS, a person must have both HIV infection and one or more of the following criteria:
- A CD4+ T cell count below 200 cells/mm3 or 14% of total lymphocytes
- One or more AIDS-defining illnesses, such as Tuberculosis, Kaposi's Sarcoma, Pneumocystis pneumonia, Cryptococcal meningitis, Cytomegalovirus retinitis, etc.
- A combination of clinical symptoms, such as unintentional weight loss (greater than 10% of body weight), chronic diarrhea, persistent fever, and night sweats.
AIDS is divided into three stages, based on the progression of the disease:
- Stage 1 (Early-stage or acute HIV infection): This phase occurs within 2-4 weeks after HIV exposure and is characterized by flu-like symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, rash, fatigue, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, etc. Some people may not experience any symptoms during this stage, but the virus is highly contagious at this time and can be detected by HIV tests.
- Stage 2 (Chronic or asymptomatic HIV infection): This phase can last for years or even decades, during which the person may not have any visible symptoms but can still transmit the virus to others. However, the virus is replicating inside the body and slowly damaging the immune system, leading to a decline in CD4+ T cell count. Regular medical check-ups are crucial during this stage to monitor the virus and prevent AIDS-related complications.
- Stage 3 (AIDS): This stage occurs when the immune system is severely compromised, and the person develops opportunistic infections or cancers that are rare or not severe in people with a healthy immune system. AIDS-related illnesses can affect any part of the body and can lead to death if left untreated. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) and prophylaxis for opportunistic infections can prolong the survival and improve the quality of life of people with AIDS.
In summary, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and AIDS is the advanced stage of untreated HIV infection. HIV can be asymptomatic for years, while AIDS is characterized by severe symptoms and illnesses that are not treatable by conventional medicines. HIV can be transmitted through specific bodily fluids and can lead to AIDS if not diagnosed and treated promptly. ART and other medical interventions can slow down or even stop the progression of HIV and prevent the development of AIDS. Therefore, early detection and regular medical care are essential for people living with HIV/AIDS to maintain their health and well-being.