What is AIDS?

Jane Harmon

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a condition characterized by damage to the human immune system, which allows infections that would otherwise be controlled to run riot. These infections, which are called opportunistic infections, would be relatively minor to someone with a strong immune system, but can lead to death for those with AIDS.

Many public health advocates have shifted focus to AIDS prevention education.
Many public health advocates have shifted focus to AIDS prevention education.

This condition is caused by a virus, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The length of time between infection with HIV and the development of AIDS can be lengthened by drug regimens, but even without treatment there is still usually a lag time of several years. This means that those unknowingly infected with HIV have a number of years during which they might accidentally infect others.

AIDS originated in Sub-Saharan Africa.
AIDS originated in Sub-Saharan Africa.

HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, notably semen, blood and breast milk. Tears, saliva and sweat may contain the virus, but in such low concentrations that transmission via these fluids is virtually impossible. People are most commonly infected through unprotected sexual intercourse or the sharing of unsterilized needles among intravenous drug-users.

When AIDS was first identified, it was found to cluster in the gay population in California, and for a number of years it was unfairly stigmatized as a "gay disease." This led to some heterosexuals and children with the condition being discriminated against, with some children being forced from their schools.

The disease is thought to have originated in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, unlike the US, the main route of transmission is heterosexual sex, and AIDS has had enormously destructive impact on a number of African countries, cutting a swath through the most productive demographic — young, sexually-active adults. An unwillingness to speak frankly about what causes the condition slowed international reaction to this disease, but some nations are now successfully slowing the spread of AIDS through widespread advocacy of the use of condoms.

In the US, its spread has been slowed by education in safe sex methods and the development of treatments for the HIV-infected that delay the onset of full-blown AIDS. Whereas in the early days, a person diagnosed with HIV had only a few years to live, though the disease is still fatal — one doesn't 'recover' from it — people generally have a longer life expectancy and a longer lag time before progressing from HIV. The concept of living with AIDS is one the world is just starting to get used to, although the drug therapies are expensive and unavailable in poorer countries.

Using safe sex practices can help reduce an individual's chances of contracting AIDS.
Using safe sex practices can help reduce an individual's chances of contracting AIDS.

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Discussion Comments


HIV you have stated incorrectly is not a disease. It is a retrovirus which causes AIDS. Hence why a lot of people who have AIDS take antiretrovirals.


I beg, respectfully, to differ with some of the statements of the author. While I respect the attempt to define AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), some of the information that is presented, if popular belief, is not accurate.

AIDS in and of itself is not a disease. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the disease. AIDS is a a name used to describe a level of HIV infection that results in a person suffering from a number of symptoms related to HIV infection.

People do not spread AIDS, they spread HIV. They may suffer from AIDS, but they can't pass AIDS to someone else. Those who have HIV may eventually develop several of the conditions and illnesses that are listed among the things that lead to a medical professional diagnosing a person with AIDS. Some of these things include having a T-cell/CD4 count of less than 200, having constant diarrhea and wasting disease, suffering from various types of cancer associated with HIV infection, pneumococcal pneumonia, cryptococcal meningitis, and other serious diseases that are hard to fight when a person's immune system is compromised.

It is a fact that many of the people in Africa who are diagnosed with AIDS have never been tested for HIV. They may have a number of the illnesses and conditions that are on the list of AIDS-related problems, like diarrhea, bloating, wasting, gastrointestinal problems, pneumonia, meningitis, and other problems, yet never have been tested for for the HIV virus. If they have never been tested for HIV, there is no way for anyone to establish that they actually have AIDS, leaving us to wonder if those numbers that are available are accurate.

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