An Overview of the Basic Terms and Definitions of AIDS and HIV

An Overview of the Basic Terms and Definitions of AIDS and HIV

AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, results from infection by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The virus destroys cells of the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to a variety of opportunistic infections. Untreated HIV-positive people eventually fall ill with secondary infections. Months or years may elapse between the initial infection and the first symptoms, so people often spread the disease before they know they are infected. The virus is primarily transmitted sexually, but may also be passed on through blood transfusions, sharing needles, or other activities involving an exchange of bodily fluids. It can even be passed on from infected mothers to their newborn babies. (Quiz yourself on your HIV/AIDS knowledge)

AIDS has reached epidemic proportions worldwide. It has reached pandemic stage in Africa, where it is thought to have originated. In some African nations, up to one-third of the adult population is infected. In developed countries, treatment with antiretroviral drugs has transformed the infection from a certain death sentence to a manageable chronic condition. However, the high cost of the drugs is one obstacle to many AIDS patients in poorer nations. In South Africa, President Mbeki has denounced the use of anti-retroviral drugs to fight AIDS, touting the message that AIDS is the lot of poverty-stricken populations and that pharmaceutical companies are all about the money, not treatment of the needy. Patriarchal views disadvantage women in Africa, compounding the health crisis by denying available education and treatment.

Pharmaceutical companies received significant bad publicity in the 1990s for enforcing their patent rights, preventing cheaper generic copies of their medicines from being manufactured, a universally common practice. Pressure from AIDS activists and shareholders resulted in a reversal of this policy. Discounts now offered by pharmaceutical companies help make anti-AIDS drugs available to many, but not all, people in the developing world. The lack of a well-organized medical infrastructure is an additional challenge to health care providers treating patients in remote areas of Africa.

Terms and Definitions Related to HIV/AIDS

AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus

Opportunistic Infections: Diseases resulting from infection by organisms that rarely affect a person with a normal immune system. AIDS patients suffer from opportunistic infections including cryptosporidiosis, histoplasmosis, Kaposi's sarcoma (a type of cancer), and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

Secondary Infections: An infection that takes hold after the patient has already been infected by another organism. For example, many people with the common cold (caused by a virus) develop secondary bacterial infections.

Sharing Needles: There is a high rate of HIV infection among intravenous drug abusers because they sometimes use a single needle to inject multiple people. Traces of infected blood on a needle can transmit HIV as well as other viruses. In some clinics in very poor areas, health care workers have reused needles due to the scarcity of new, sterile ones.

Antiretroviral Drugs: Medicines that block the replication of retroviruses such as HIV. Retroviruses have a genome made up of RNA (instead of DNA, as human cells have). In order to infect a human immune system cell (a T cell), the HIV virus must copy its RNA sequence into DNA. The term "retro" comes from the order of this copying, which is from the reverse of the usual DNA-to-RNA movement of genetic information. Antiretroviral drugs are not a cure, but they improve the health of HIV-positive people by lowering viral loads.

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