The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the body’s immune system. The virus weakens your body’s ability to fight infections and disease, a condition known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This is the point when the disease begins to show symptoms. The virus can be transmitted through contact with infected blood, semen or vaginal fluids.
No cure exists for AIDS, but strict adherence to antiretroviral medicine (ARVs) can dramatically slow the disease’s progress and prevent infections and complications. The medicines can also prevent an HIV infected mother from passing the virus to her baby during pregnancy, at birth or while breastfeeding. The best way to prevent infection with HIV is through safe sex practices and appropriate treatment for those who have been infected.
Some people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within two to four weeks after the virus enters the body. This may last for a few weeks. These symptoms can be so mild that you might not even notice them. However, the amount of virus in your bloodstream (viral load) is quite high during this stage of the infection and, as a result, you can easily infect someone with the virus.
During the next stage of the infection, HIV remains present in your body and white blood cells. However, many people show no symptoms. This stage can last for many years. If you're not receiving antiretroviral therapy during this period, and the virus continues to multiply and destroy your immune cells, you may lose your ability to fight infections. This is when the infection becomes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
At this point, you may develop mild or severe infections. These are the main sources of the symptoms, such as:
- Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection
- Weight loss
- Oral yeast infection (thrush)
- Shingles (herpes zoster)
When AIDS occurs, your immune system has been severely damaged. You'll be more likely to develop various forms of infections or cancers, often diseases that wouldn't usually cause illness in a person with a healthy immune system.
AIDS is caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that targets immune cells and destroys them.
HIV/ AIDS can infect anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation. The virus can be transmitted through contact with infected blood, semen or vaginal fluids. You're at the greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you:
- Have unprotected sex. Use a new condom every time you have sex. Anal sex is riskier than vaginal sex. Your risk of HIV increases if you have multiple sexual partners.
- Have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Many STIs produce open sores on your genitals. These sores act as doorways for HIV to enter your body.
- Inject yourself with drugs. People who inject drugs often share needles and syringes. This exposes them to droplets of other people's blood, which may be infected with the virus.
If you think you may have been infected with HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. In the healthcare centres in Nigeria, there is free testing, counselling and condoms for preventing HIV transmission. These services are available for adolescents, youth and adults. If you are pregnant, you should always be tested for HIV to prevent you passing the virus to your baby.
- Practice safe sex all the time. Use a condom for all sexual activities with your partner(s).
- You and your partner(s) should get tested and treated for HIV and other STIs.
- Limit the number of sexual partners, preferably have one and stay faithful to each other.
- A person who has been exposed to HIV should contact their healthcare provider as soon as possible about obtaining post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), prescription ART that can reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
- A person at a high risk of HIV should talk to their healthcare provider about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). If taken consistently, it can lower the risk of contracting HIV.
- If you are pregnant, get tested for HIV. Your baby can be protected from getting HIV if you use your HIV medicines and give them preventive medicine when they are born.
- Diet is an important part of self-care, especially if you have lost a lot of weight.
- Take a diet rich in fruits, vegetables (green, leafy vegetables), proteins (fish or chicken), dairy products (milk or soymilk), carbohydrates (like rice) and healthy fats (groundnuts and avocados).
- Drink a lot of clean water, especially when using medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART).
- Physical activity can help you remain fit and cope with symptoms. Participate in moderate to mild exercise that works major muscle groups in your body (arm, leg, back and abdomen).
- You can get help and mental health support in a community of people living with HIV/ AIDS. There are patient support groups in every treatment centre in Nigeria.
- Continue to practice safe sex even when using your ART. It doesn't protect you from other STIs.
Currently, there's no cure for HIV/AIDS. Once you have the infection, your body can't get rid of it. However, some medications can control the virus in your body. These medications are called antiretroviral therapy (ART).
- Everyone diagnosed with HIV should be started on ART, regardless of their stage of infection or complications.
- ART is usually a combination of three or more medications from several different drug classes. This approach has the best chance of lowering the amount of HIV in the blood. Many ART options combine three HIV medications into one pill, taken once daily.
- Your healthcare provider will likely recommend medicines to prevent infections that may take advantage of your weakened immune system.
- If you have problems taking your medicines, it is best to speak to your healthcare provider about it. Do not stop your ART medications without speaking to your healthcare provider.
HIV used to be a death sentence. But not anymore, treatment options continue to show promise. And patients with HIV can live completely normal lives with proper treatment and adequate antiretroviral therapy.