HIV and AIDS
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease that makes it difficult for the body to fight off infectious diseases. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS by infecting and damaging part of the body's defenses against infection — its lymphocytes, which are white blood cells in the immune (infection-fighting) system that are supposed to fight off invading germs.
HIV can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluid of someone who is infected with the virus. That contact usually comes from sharing needles or by having unprotected sex with an infected person. An infant could get HIV from a mother who is infected.
HIV and AIDS can be treated, but there are no vaccines or cures for them.
What HIV Does to the Body
The virus attacks specific lymphocytes called T helper cells (also known as T-cells), takes them over, and multiplies. This destroys more T-cells, which damages the body's ability to fight off invading germs and disease.
When the number of T-cells falls to a very low level, people with HIV become more susceptible to other infections and they may get certain types of cancer that a healthy body would normally be able to fight off. This weakened immunity (or immune deficiency) is known as AIDS and can result in severe life-threatening infections, some forms of cancer, and the deterioration of the nervous system.
Although AIDS is always caused by an HIV infection, not everyone with HIV has AIDS. In fact, some adults who become infected with HIV may appear healthy for years before developing AIDS.
How Common Is HIV/AIDS?
The first case of HIV was reported in 1981, but the disease may have existed unrecognized for many years before that. HIV infection leading to AIDS has been a major cause of illness and death among children, teens, and young adults worldwide.
In recent years, HIV infection rates have been increasing rapidly among teens and young adults. Half of all new HIV infections in the United States occur in people under 25 years old; thousands of teens acquire new HIV infections each year. Most new HIV cases in younger people are transmitted through unprotected sex; one third are from injected drug usage via the sharing of dirty, blood-contaminated needles.
Among children, most cases of HIV infections resulted from transmission of the HIV virus from the mother to her child during pregnancy or birth, or through breastfeeding. In rare cases children may have been infected by being sexually abused by someone living with HIV.
Fortunately, medicines currently given to HIV-positive pregnant women have drastically reduced mother-to-child HIV transmission in the United States. These drugs are also used to slow or reduce some of the effects of the disease in people who are already infected.
But these medicines have not been readily available worldwide, particularly in the poorer nations hardest hit by the epidemic. Providing access to these life-saving treatments has become an issue of global importance.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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