What It Is
Infection with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) if not stalled by medication. The virus weakens a person's ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are considered to have AIDS when they develop certain infections or cancers, or when their CD4 cell count (an indicator of how strong the immune system is, determined by a blood test at a doctor’s office) drops below 200. It can take many years for people infected with the HIV virus to develop AIDS. Currently neither AIDS nor HIV infection can be cured.
Who Gets It
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 1,185,000 people in the U.S. have contracted HIV/AIDS, with about one quarter unaware of their infection. The estimated number of new cases of HIV is 42,000 each year. A person gets HIV when an infected person's body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina or breast milk) enter the bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus or sex organs, or through broken skin. Both men and women can spread HIV. Common ways to contract HIV include needle sharing (for drugs), unprotected sex (anal, oral, vaginal) with an infected person, dirty needles used to make a tattoo or in body piercing, blood transfusion from an infected person (very unlikely in the U.S. and Western Europe, where all blood is tested for HIV infection), or being born to a mother who is HIV infected. A baby can also get HIV from the breast milk of an infected woman.
The first signs of infection are often flu-like symptoms occurring a month or two after the initial infection. These symptoms subside within a week to a month. A person can be infected with HIV for many years before feeling ill. As the disease progresses, both men and women may experience yeast infections on the tongue (thrush), and women may develop severe vaginal yeast infections or pelvic inflammatory disease. Signs that HIV is turning into AIDS include: a fever that won't go away, sweating while asleep, perpetually feeling tired and sick, losing weight, and swollen glands.
How It's Diagnosed/Detected
A blood test (done at a doctor’s office or with a home access test that tests blood from a finger prick, which is then sent off to a licensed laboratory) or an FDA-approved oral fluid test (OraSure and OraQuick Advance). Because they consider them inaccurate, the FDA has not approved any of the home-use HIV tests which allow people to interpret their tests results at home.
How It Affects Fertility (and Pregnancy)
A 2002 study on the impact of AIDS/HIV on fertility in Sub- Saharan Africa concluded that HIV-infected women experience reduced pregnancy rates and rising levels of spontaneous abortion. HIV/AIDS induces sterility, increases the risks of fetal mortality and stillbirth, and decreases sperm production in men. But it’s certainly possible for an HIV-infected woman to become pregnant, and to have a healthy baby (see below).
Antiretroviral drugs (also referred to as HAART, for highly active anti-retroviral therapy) slow the progression of the infection towards AIDS, or in some cases stop it altogether. If the infection has progressed to AIDS, treatment may also include drugs to combat and prevent certain infections that AIDS patients are more likely to contract.
Women with HIV can have a healthy baby provided they receive appropriate treatment during pregnancy and aggressive monitoring of the baby afterwards. Women who harbor the virus that causes AIDS should not breast-feed their babies, as the virus can be passed on through breast milk.
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