THINK ON THESE: The specter of HIV

In the 3-part series of HIV (“HIV: From death sentence of lifetime treatment”), there are some information which I left out and did not include. It’s not because I have forgotten them; the reason is that I omitted them because I didn’t want to break the flow of the story.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It attacks the immune system, the body’s natural defense against illness. The website of Avert (www.avert.org) gives this basic information: “The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also referred to as CD4 cells. As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually breaks down a person’s immune system.”

If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10-15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged it can no longer defend itself at all. “However, the speed HIV progresses will vary depending on age, health and background,” Avert points out.

HIV is spread through the exchange of body fluids like high viral load like cerebral fluid, amniotic fluid, blood, semen, cervical and vaginal secretions and breastmilk. It is transmitted by sexual intercourse, blood and blood products, shared needles, and mother-to-child.

Most of those infected with the virus got it through sexual intercourse, “the insertion and thrusting of the penis, usually when erect, into the vagina for sexual pleasure, reproduction, or both.”

But that’s what vaginal sex is all about. There are other forms of penetrative sexual intercourse; these include anal sex (penetration of the anus by the penis), oral sex (penetration of the mouth by the penis or oral penetration of the female genitalia), fingering (sexual penetration by the fingers), and penetration by use of a dildo (especially a strap-on dildo).

The routes of HIV transmission are well-known, but unfounded fear continues concerning the potential transmission by other means, such as casual contact in a household, school, workplace, or food-service setting. So far, there are no scientific evidence to support any of these fears have been found.

However, there are some practices that increase the likelihood of contact with the blood of an infected person like sharing toothbrushes or razors. As much as possible, avoid sharing these personal necessities to others.

HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact for the virus dies easily when exposed to sunlight and air. “Body fluids with sufficient viral load must enter another person’s bloodstream for infection to occur,” the Manila-based Health Action Information Network (HAIN) explains.

You cannot get HIV from kissing (as long as you don’t bite each other while kissing, causing some wounds). “A protein saliva in human saliva keeps HIV from infecting while blood cells,” points out “The Medical Advisor: A Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments.” “The protein attaches itself to white blood cells and protects them from infection.”

Despite this fact, people are still adamant. Better safe than sorry, they say. However, HAIN gives this assurance: “To get HIV through kissing, you need to imbibe 32 liters of an infected person’s saliva. That would be enough saliva to fill up the gasoline tank of six-by-sick truck. And the transfer should happen in one kissing session!”

If a used needle can transmit HIV to another person, what about the bite of a mosquito which has bitten an infected person? In “Scientific American,” Dr. Laurence Corash, chief medical officer of Cerus Corporation, provides the following explanation:

“Mosquitoes do not provide HIV with the T-cells the virus needs in order to replicate.
The AIDS virus (HIV) on used needles is infectious when injected into a human where the virus can bind to T cells and start to replicate. The human T-cell is a very specific host cell for HIV. When a mosquito feeds on a person with HIV in his or her blood, the HIV enters the insect’s gut, which does not contain human T cells. The virus thus has no host cell in which to replicate and it is broken down by the mosquito’s digestive system.”

There are several ways you can avoid getting HIV. The Department of Health recommends ABCs: abstinence, be faithful, and condom. “Correct and consistent use of male and female condoms during vaginal or anal penetration can protect against the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” WHO claims.

Male circumcision – the removal of all or part of the foreskin of the male sexual organ – also helps. According to WHO, circumcision “reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”

The advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV is called AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. “AIDS is not a virus but a set of symptoms (or syndrome) caused by the HIV virus,” Avert explained. “A person is said to have AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and they develop certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death.”

Being infected with HIV is no longer a death sentence these days. “There is effective antiretroviral treatment (ART) available so people with HIV can live a normal, healthy life,” Avert said. “The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can start – leading to better long term health.”

A 2011 trial has confirmed that if an HIV-positive person adheres to an effective ART regimen, the risk of transmitting the virus to their uninfected sexual partner can be reduced by 96%.

However, in order to be treated, you need to know if you have HIV. And you get to know that only if you undergo HIV testing. “Testing for HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections is strongly advised for all people exposed to any of the risk factors,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in its website. “This way people learn of their own infection status and access necessary prevention and treatment services without delay.”

However, all HIV testing services must follow the 5 principles recommended by WHO: consent (informed), confidentiality, counselling, correct test results, and connection (linkage to care, treatment and other services).

“One of the hardships faced by many newly-diagnosed individuals is the information and access on vaccinations (e.g. pneumococcal, influenza vaccines, etc.) many of whom I do not exactly know where to go and does not have the financial capacity to pay for such vaccines,” wrote Alvin Cloyd Dakis, a registered nurse, in an article published in “Health and Lifestyle.”

Some vaccines reportedly cost from P2,000 to P4,500. “Many of those newly-diagnosed (who are dominantly young) just find it hard to comply,” Dakis wrote. “I hope that such services will also be made available especially to those who are indigents or students.”

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