Why HIV Infection Is No Longer a Death Sentence: Facts, Preventions, Treatments and More
Published | 5 min read
Having a normal quality of life while suffering from HIV infection is no longer an impossibility. Discover the truth and fight the stigma.
The sudden outbreak, the panic, the ignorance of some, the isolation, the death toll, the stigma; can you guess what we’re referring to? While some might say, “COVID-19 pandemic,” others might answer, “HIV infection” and both would be right.
Around 40 years since the virus was first identified, HIV continues to be a major global public health issue, World Health Organization (WHO) reveals. There’s an estimation of 37.7 million people living with HIV at the end of 2020. Sadly, not only the virus, but the stigma surrounding it also persists.
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) writes that the stigma around HIV stems from fear, driven by a lack of information and awareness, combined with outdated beliefs. It can be concluded, then, that the best way to be free of the HIV fear is to learn more about it.
Read along as we unveil facts about the HIV infection, from its causes, differences from AIDS, treatments, symptoms, preventions and more.
HIV Infection: The Facts
Here are several things you will need to know about HIV.
The origin of HIV
HIV is short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. WHO defines it as an infection that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the white blood cells (CD4 cells).
Researchers have discovered that HIV is a hybrid of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) originated in monkeys, which infected chimps, and later transmitted to humans. This type of HIV is called HIV-1, which is the kind that is detected in 95% of infections worldwide.
The second type of HIV, named HIV-2, was first acquired by humans from Sooty Mangabey monkeys. Largely found in West Africa, HIV-2 is quite uncommon and less hostile than HIV-1. However, when untreated, both can develop into AIDS and be fatal.
Why is the HIV infection dangerous
As mentioned above, HIV damages the immune cells. In doing so, the virus leaves the infected person defenceless against other infections and cancer.
Someone can get infected from an HIV-positive person’s body fluids via sexual intercourse and contact with blood. A mother can also transmit the virus to her child in the womb, during delivery or through breast milk. Drug users can infect each other when sharing needles.
An accidental prick of a needle from or bite by a patient can be a bit risky. It’s crucial to visit a doctor immediately to receive the antiretroviral treatment (ART).
Sharing utensils and personal objects is fairly safe, as long as they’re unable to cut or cause a wound with an infected person. The virus is not transmissible through normal physical contact, like shaking hands and hugging. Also, mosquito and insect bites definitely cannot spread the disease.
People with HIV who take ART and are virally suppressed will not infect their sexual partners.
These behaviours or circumstances can put some people in a bigger danger:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Engaging in unprotected sex
- Having intercourse with commercial sex workers
- Suffering from sexually transmitted disease or STD, like syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and bacterial vaginosis
- Sharing of needles between drug users
- Receiving unsafe medical procedures using unsterile tools
- Experiencing accidental needle-related injuries
Difference Between HIV and AIDS
Without any treatment, HIV can progress into the most advanced stage, which is Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
Overall, the HIV infection is divided into three stages:
- Stage 1: Acute Infection
Symptoms: Flu, cough, fever and joint pain.
Duration: 2-4 weeks after infection.
- Stage 2: Dormancy
Symptoms: The influenza-like illness disappears, and the infected person feels well, without realizing that HIV continues to destroy their immune cells.
- Stage 3: AIDS
Symptoms: Candida (a type of yeast) infection of the mouth, severe seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) on the face and chest, severe psoriasis, severe sun sensitivity, eosinophilic folliculitis (lesions) on the whole body, cryptococcal meningitis, tuberculosis, and cancers, including lymphomas and Kaposi’s sarcoma.
The only way to properly diagnose is through a blood test. A person may need to retake the test in one to three months regardless of the result. The reason is that the antibodies to HIV will develop within 28 days of possible exposure. During this “window period”, the level of HIV antibodies in a person may not be high enough to be detected. At the same time, it’s also a critical period where a person may infect others.
Individuals with high-risk behaviours, as listed above, should frequently get themselves tested. Additionally, pregnant women in Malaysia must get a mandatory HIV test at antenatal check-ups.
Since there is no vaccine for HIV yet, a person can avoid contracting HIV through:
- Practising safe sex
- Staying away from illicit drug use
- Strengthening the immune system
- HIV and STD testing
- Testing TB patients for HIV
- Taking ART
- Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV
Although there is still no cure for the HIV infection, treatments are available. As stated above, by taking ART, an infected person can control the virus and therefore not transmit it to other people. It will also suppress the virus from replicating and boost the CD4 cells.
As long as the patient remains on this daily, long-term treatment, they can live normally like any other uninfected person. The earlier they can get diagnosed and receive ART, the better.
A 2017 study, although limited, concluded that ART would have a better effect when combined with Chinese herbs. Furthermore, the research also showed that the herbs alone could provide a similar result with the ART combination.
A 2010 study explores the relationship between HIV and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) further. In TCM, treatments for the HIV infection include Chinese medications, acupuncture, moxibustion and the Qi Gong exercise.
These practices are believed to enhance immunity, slow down the virus’ progression to AIDS and alleviate the symptoms. For now, the first and only TCM-approved medication for HIV and AIDS – that is already approved by SFDA – is Tangcao Tablet.
Looking at the development of the treatments, it seems like the clampdown on the HIV infection in recent years has been quite a success. Especially since HIV patients can now expect to live as long as uninfected individuals.
While it may not be a clean and complete victory against HIV, things have certainly been looking up. Hopefully, this will lead to a more optimistic, AIDS-free future.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Stigma [online] [Accessed 7 January 2022]
- National Geographic. 2003. HIV Originated With Monkeys, Not Chimps, Study Finds [online] [Accessed 8 January 2022]
- Avert. 2015. HIV strains and types [online] [Accessed 8 January 2022]
- World Health Organization. 2021. HIV/AIDS [online] [Accessed 7 January 2022]
- World Health Organization. 2019. HIV/AIDS [online] [Accessed 7 January 2022]
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2017. Long-Term Survival of AIDS Patients Treated with Only Traditional Chinese Medicine [online] [Accessed 7 January 2022]
- Research Gate. 2010. Recent Advances of HIV/AIDS Treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine in China [online] [Accessed 7 January 2022]