A Banner Publication
June 7, 2007 – No. 10
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From initial infection to AIDS: The progression of HIV

AIDS has been one of this nation’s leading health problems since the first reported case in the United States in 1981. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 1.2 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS, and roughly 40,000 new cases of HIV are diagnosed annually. According to a 2005 CDC report, of those diagnosed with AIDS, 29 percent were white, 19 percent were Hispanic/Latino and a startling 50 percent were black.

It is important to understand HIV/AIDS, its symptoms, progression and treatment options, especially given its prevalence among the black population in America.

AIDS starts as HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which is contracted when an infected individual’s bodily fluids (such as blood, sperm, or vaginal secretions) come in contact with an uninfected person’s broken skin or mucous membrane. In 2005, the most common form of transmission of the virus was through sexual contact, while 20 percent were the result of the use of injection drugs. Transmission of the virus is also possible from a pregnant woman to her fetus or through breast milk. However, a treatment is available that can reduce by two-thirds the risk of transmission to the baby.

Once contracted, HIV begins to attack the white blood cells that fight disease. With fewer white blood cells, a person is more susceptible to sickness, and his or her body has a more difficult time fighting off infection. For some, it takes years for HIV to develop into AIDS. A person is considered to have AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, once his or her white blood cell count gets below a certain level — usually about 200. At this point, the body is nearly incapable of fighting off sickness.

The symptoms of HIV vary by stage. When first infected, the symptoms are similar to those of a common cold or flu. Then, for a period of time — up to ten years or more — a person can be relatively symptom free. That is why it’s important to be checked regularly if you are sexually active. When symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Low energy
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent fevers and sweats
  • Persistent or frequent yeast infections
  • Persistent skin rashes or flaky skin
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Sores from herpes infections

As the disease progresses to AIDS, the symptoms also begin to change. The symptoms of AIDS can include:

  • Cough and shortness of breath
  • Seizures and lack of coordination
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Mental symptoms, such as confusion and forgetfulness
  • Severe and persistent diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Vision loss
  • Nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting
  • Weight loss and extreme fatigue
  • Severe headaches with neck stiffness
  • Coma
  • Susceptibility to certain cancers

Fortunately, there are several treatment options for people with HIV or AIDS. While there is no cure or vaccine, there are drug plans that can slow the rate of the disease and improve the quality of life for those living with HIV or AIDS.

It is important to be tested regularly if you fall in a group at risk for contracting HIV. The CDC now encourages voluntary HIV testing as a routine part of medical care for all adolescents and adults ages 13 to 64 regardless of risk. It is also important to understand that there are many treatment options available for people who test positive.