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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system resulting in gradual immune breakdown.
If HIV is not treated, it can lead to Advanced HIV infection. In advanced HIV infection, the body’s immune system is so weak its almost non-existent. HIV cannot be cured but with advances in medical care , HIV patients can lead a very normal life if they are compliant to medications and follow up.
Origins of HIV
Interestingly, HIV infection in humans is believed to have came from a type of chimpanzee living in Central Africa. The chimpanzee version of the virus was probably passed to humans when humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came into contact with their blood.
Studies showed that this transmission from chimpanzee to humans likely happened in the late 1800s. Over decades, HIV slowly spread across Africa and later into the rest of the world.
Effects of HIV
When someone catches HIV, the virus attacks and destroys a particular type of lymphocyte cells, which is a crucial part of our immune system, called CD4 T-lymphocytes.
The loss of CD4 cells makes it difficult for our body to fight off infections and even certain cancers. As a result, the patients are prone to getting all sorts of infections and even cancers which can be potentially fatal.
The good news however, is that there are treatments available now to suppress the HIV virus within our body!
How HIV spreads
HIV is a virus that spreads through contact with the blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids or breast milk of a person with HIV. In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having anal or vaginal sex or sharing needles and injectables with a person who has HIV.
In Singapore, sexual intercourse remains the main mode of HIV transmission, accounting for 95% of all reported HIV cases in 2020. Other modes of transmission can be from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery or even breast feeding.
HIV cannot be transmitted by
- saliva, tears or sweat or kissing
- sharing water and food with a HIV patient
- casual physical contact like shaking hands or hugging
- You cannot also get HIV by coming into contact with objects such as dishes, toilet seats, or doorknobs used by a person with HIV
- Not spread through the air or water or by insects bites.
Stages of HIV infection
Stage 1 is what we call an acute Infection. In this acute infection, which can take place roughly within a month of exposure to the virus, patients may experience flu like symptoms such as
fever and chills
- body ache and headache with fatigue
- night sweats
- mouth ulcers
- sore throat
- even swollen lymph nodes
Essentially many other viruses can cause the same symptoms - but if you may have been exposed to HIV recently, please see a health care provider to get it checked.
Stage 1 symptoms may last for a few days to a few weeks. Some people may even pass through stage 1 without any noticeable symptoms
Stage 2 would be chronic HIV infection The HIV virus remains dormant within your body and you may not have any symptoms. However you are still infectious and can therefore spread it to others. This stage may last for about a decade or so before you progress to stage 3.
Patients who are on treatment for HIV may remain in Stage 2 and never progress to Stage 3.
Stage 3 : AIDS
Stage 3 was formally known as the AIDS. Now we call it Advanced HIV infection. This is the most severe phase of HIV infection when patients may have such badly damaged immune systems that they get increasing number of severe infections called opportunistic infections.
These are infections like fungal infections, parasitic infections or atypical bacteria infections which most of us will never catch if our immune system is working well.
Patients are typically very sick and will require urgent medical attention. In this stage, the amount of HIV virus within your body is very high and you are very infectious. Without treatment, patients in stage 3 typically survive less than 3 years.
By : Dr Chen Yiming
Family Physician, MBBS (Singapore), GDFM (NUS), GDFP Dermatology (NUS)