What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) gradually damages the body’s immune system and eventually causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The human body is equipped with CD4 cells, also called helper T cells, which defend the body against viruses and bacteria. HIV damages the immune system by attacking and entering these cells. Once inside the cells, the viruses reproduce and then move on to attack other helper T cells and repeat the process. As more helper T cells are overtaken, the body becomes less and less able to fight off illnesses.
What is AIDS?
AIDS occurs when one’s immune system is so damaged that it cannot fight ‘opportunistic’ infections – infections healthy immune systems can fight off but weakened ones can not. Because the body is not able to fight off these diseases, the person will eventually die. The most common opportunistic infections include tuberculosis, pneumonia, skin cancer, meningitis, thrush, herpes, and bacterial infections that cause fevers, digestive difficulties, and weight loss. AIDS manifests itself differently in every individual.
How is HIV/AIDS Transmitted?
HIV is transmitted when a person has contact with certain bodily fluids of another person who is HIV-positive.
HIV is primarily transmitted in the following ways:
Sexual activity is the most common form of HIV transmission. HIV can occur when bodily fluids of an HIV-positive partner enter into the other partner, including through even small, unidentifiable cuts or scratches.
Sexually Transmitted Infection
The risk of transmission is further increased if either partner has a sexually transmitted infection (STI). An STI is any disease that is passed from one person to another through sexual contact. HIV is also an STI. A person with an STI is 10 times more likely to transmit or acquire HIV than a person without an STI.
An individual can become infected if he or she is given HIV-infected blood during a blood transfusion. Most countries now test donated blood for HIV, making the risk low. However, in situations where such screening is not done, the risk is much higher.
Sharing Needles and using Syringes or Razor Blades
Needles, syringes, razor blades, and other instruments that pierce the skin (for drug injection, tattooing, piercing, carving scars, circumcision, or shaving) can transmit the virus if they are used first by an infected person. One can even contract HIV in a health-care setting if syringes, needles, and equipment are not properly sterilized.
An HIV-infected woman can pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy through the placenta and during childbirth through exposure to the mother’s blood. Without treatment, approximately 15-30 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers are infected with the virus. HIV also can be transmitted to a breast-feeding baby through the mother’s milk. Breast-feeding by an HIV-positive mother increases the risk of transmission to her baby by 10-20%. Antiretroviral preventative treatment is an effective method of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. When combined with the use of safer infant-feeding methods, it can halve the risk of infant infection.
Special thanks to World Vision for allowing NCM to reprint information from A Guide to Acting On AIDS: Understanding the Global AIDS Pandemic and Responding Through Faith and Action.