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What is HIV?

What is HIV? HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The word “immunodeficiency” means that this virus progressively weakens and destroys the immune system. The immune system allows the body to fight against infections. Because the immune system gets weaker and weaker, a person infected with HIV eventually cannot fight against infections such as tuberculosis and is more likely to get cancer: this is the stage of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, occurring without treatment. Once a person is infected with HIV, the virus cannot be eliminated from its body but it can be controlled by a treatment. Today, people treated can have a normal life.

What happens in case of infection? After infection, the virus starts to replicate mostly in some white blood cells called lymphocytes CD4. At this stage, a few weeks after infection, some people may feel sick with flu-like symptoms (decreased appetite, fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches etc.) with sometimes rashes, sore throat or tonsillitis. After this period, there may be few or no symptoms for some years but the virus continues to weaken the immune system, and there is an increasing risk of infections or cancers. A simple test can determine if a person is infected. The earlier a person is diagnosed, the earlier he/she can receive treatment and the less likely to become sick and transmit the infection to others.

Transmission There are 3 modes of transmission of the virus:

  • Sexual transmission through sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal) without protection

  • Blood transmission through blood exchange (intravenous drug use, transfusion of contaminated blood, unsterilized material)

  • Perinatal transmission: from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding

Screening and diagnosis The only way a person can know if he/she is infected is to get tested. Tests are widely available and inexpensive in hospitals and laboratories in Thailand and in some community-based organizations. Most HIV tests are based on the detection of antibodies directed against HIV. A test is positive if antibodies against HIV can be detected, and negative if not. However, after contamination, it takes a few weeks for antibodies to appear in the blood. Tests may not be sensitive enough to detect them during this period. This is called the window period; a test performed during this period may be falsely negative if there was a contamination. It is then recommended to repeat the test within a few weeks to be sure it is negative. Nowadays, new tests are more sensitive to detect antibodies earlier (about one week).

Prevention There are many methods to prevent infection:

  • Use of male or female condom. Condoms also prevent many other sexually transmitted infections

  • Use of clean and unshared needles for injectable drug

  • Knowledge of your own HIV status

  • Use of antiretroviral drugs as soon as possible after infection to prevent passing the virus to others

  • Use of antiretroviral drugs by HIV un-infected persons at high risk of infection to decrease the risk of getting infected

  • Voluntary medical male circumcision: men who are circumcised are at a lower risk of getting HIV

For the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, specific methods based on the use of antiretroviral drugs by the mother and the newborn are used.

Treatment Current treatments allow infected people to have a normal life by controlling the virus multiplication in the body. A combination of antiretroviral drugs, which can be formulated in one pill to take once or twice a day. This allows the immune system to strengthen and fight off infections and other diseases. Today, there are no treatments that can totally eliminate the virus from the body and definitely cure HIV infection.

There are free and anonymous testing and counselling appointment for HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Syphilis in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Learn more on our contact page

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