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Diseases & Topics

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) damages a person's body by destroying specific blood cells the body needs to fight infections and diseases. HIV is spread through blood and genital secretions during unprotected sex (genital or rectal), and through sharing needles or other drug use paraphernalia. HIV can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.

If left untreated, HIV will progress through three stages of disease:

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

Acute HIV infection is characterized by the development of a flu-like illness within 2-4 weeks after becoming infected. During this stage, a person’s viral load is usually very high and they are extremely contagious. Standard HIV testing for antibodies may be falsely negative in this early stage of disease therefore diagnosis should be done with either a combination antigen/antibody test or nucleic acid test (NAT).

Stage 2: Clinical Latency

This stage can last anywhere from a few years to decades and is usually associated with no symptoms. People who are taking antivirals to treat HIV may remain in this stage of infection indefinitely. Persons living with HIV who are in this stage of infection and remain durably virally suppressed cannot transmit HIV to their sex partners. In the absence of effective antiretroviral therapy, individuals in the clinical latency stage will eventually progress to the third stage of disease.

Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS is the most serious stage of HIV infection and occurs when a person’s immune system is so badly damaged it can no longer fight off infection or disease. People are diagnosed with AIDS when they develop opportunistic infections, certain cancers or their CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm. Common symptoms of AIDS include chills, fever, enlarged lymph nodes, weakness and weight loss. Without treatment, individuals diagnosed with AIDS usually survive less than 5 years.

There is currently no cure for HIV but with appropriate antiretroviral therapy (ART), the infection can be controlled. Persons living with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load can lead long healthy lives and are not at risk of transmitting the infection to their sex partners.

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