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Since it was discovered in 1983, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has wreaked a lot of havoc in the world. AIDS, the disease that results from it, is the fourth most common cause of death worldwide. Find out how to protect yourself against this serious infection.
There are several myths surrounding HIV and AIDS, so it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. It is important to look at this issue because of the magnitude of its implications when such an infection strikes. Fortunately, preventive measures and the development of medication have contributed to limiting its consequences on Canadians. However, there is still a lot to be done to raise public awareness on the issues surrounding the disease, both at a national and global level.
The HIV infection is characterized by the progressive destruction of the immune system after the virus has attacked very specific body cells: the lymphocytic T4 (or CD4) cells. At this stage, an individual is said to be infected with HIV or to be “HIV positive”.
After the disease has progressed for several years, generally without any symptoms, the drop of CD4 cell levels brings the individual to the “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” stage (AIDS). Typical characteristics of the disease include the development of “opportunistic” infections, which are caused by germs that usually do not affect individuals in good health. AIDS can also contribute to the development of some forms of cancer. The presence of the virus can also lead to other problems such as lesions to the nervous or digestive systems, or to the muscles or kidneys.
If untreated, AIDS is a progressive life-threatening disease. Treatment significantly prolongs life expectancy.
As is the case for most viruses, HIV is contagious. It is transmitted through biofluids containing high quantities of the virus such as blood, sperm, vaginal secretions and breast milk.
The virus can be transmitted in various ways, including:
One of the myths surrounding HIV is the belief that it infects mainly men. In fact, from a biological point of view, the risk of contamination for women during heterosexual intercourse would be two or four times higher than that of men’s in the same context.
The medications used to treat this disease are called “antiretroviral” drugs. They block the development of the virus at various stages of its reproductive cycle. The treatment always involves using a combination of several medications, which improves its effectiveness. Taking all of the medication every day is essential to ensure optimal treatment. Antiretroviral drugs help slow down the progression of the virus and therefore, maintain a strong immune system to delay the onset of AIDS as long as possible. There is no cure for AIDS at present.
There is presently no vaccine to prevent contracting HIV. The best way to protect yourself from the consequences of HIV and AIDS is to avoid being contaminated by the virus. The following precautionary measures are recommended to reduce the risks of contamination:
Another precautionary measure which is essential in preventing contamination, is medical screening. If you are sexually active and have had unprotected sexual intercourse, it may be advisable to have a blood test for HIV screening. Talk to your doctor about your risk level and the relevance of the test in your situation. Contamination often occurs through sexual intercourse with an infected partner who is unaware of his/her condition.
Although AIDS is more prevalent in other parts of the world than in North America, everyone should be aware of this scourge, since no one is completely sheltered from such an infection. December 1, 2013, will mark World AIDS Day. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to have a discussion with the people close to you (i.e. your teens, if you are a parent) about HIV and AIDS, their consequences, and especially, of the ways of protecting yourself from the disease? A number of activities will be held around Canada to raise public awareness regarding the issues surrounding this disease which profoundly affects the lives of millions of individuals in the world. A contribution by each and every one of us can make a big difference.
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