Somewhat ironically, given the coronavirus crisis and Britain’s current lockdown, HIV is one of the largest epidemics in the world. Approximately 37.9 million people were living with the disease in 2018. HIV stands for ‘human immunodeficiency virus’ and can result in AIDS, which stands for ‘acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’.
Like the names would suggest, HIV is a virus that attacks the human immune system, killing cells that are vital to the regulation of immune responses. Over time, this leaves the body vulnerable to random infection that is usually understood to be ‘opportunistic infections’ (OIs) that are rarely seen in healthy humans. Most deaths from AIDS are usually a result of these infections.
On a more positive note, a UK patient has become the second person ever cured of HIV, following a treatment for cancer. The UK patient had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a key part of our immune system. Usually, doctors would try to harvest the patient’s own stem cells for treatment but this did not work.
Instead, the patient received a stem cell transplant from a donor to generate new healthy cells. The stem cells given to the patient had a natural mutation that protects against infection from some types of HIV. However, it’s important to note that before the transplant, the man was given toxic drugs to suppress his own stem cells, which has its own side effects.
The stem cells given to the patient had a natural mutation that protects against infection from some types of HIV
Furthermore, whilst the second man being cured is definitely a step in the right direction, the NHS notes that the stem cell treatment used is unlikely to have potential on a wider scale and it does not mean that a permanent cure for HIV is on the horizon.
So, what is the difference between HIV and AIDS? AIDS is simply the name used for the later stages of HIV, specifically when the patient has significant deterioration in the immune system response or has struggled with a significant OI. Up until incredibly recently, HIV was fatal in the majority of infected individuals and in 1995, complications from AIDS was the leading cause of death for adults aged 25-44 years old.
However, nowadays, with progressions in medicine and science, the course of AIDS in many patients in the developed world has dramatically changed. So much so, that many people believe the term AIDS itself has outlived its usefulness. This could be an unbelievably positive step in the direction of LGBTQ+ rights and preventing discrimination.
Back when HIV was first being reported on in the media, false reporting led to scaremongering and discrimination. It was believed that only certain people could get HIV: haemophiliacs, homosexual men, heroin users and Haitians or people of Haitian origin. Later reports also found that AIDS was more prevalent in the African-American community. Unsurprisingly, this increased tensions across the board; the LGBTQ+ community were further ostracised, as were ethnic minorities.
There is still a perception that AIDS only affects black, gay men
Today, there is still a perception that AIDS only affects black, gay men. I hope I don’t need to tell you that this is entirely untrue, but if I do, it only furthers my point. Due to past (and unfortunately still present) discrimination, the every day person’s understanding of AIDS is largely influenced by racism and homophobia.
With the correct treatment, AIDs deaths have dropped by almost two-thirds and studies have shown that a person living with HIV who is on regular antiretroviral therapy that reduces the virus to undetectable levels in the blood is not able to transmit HIV to a partner during sex. Therefore, many people with HIV can go about their everyday lives as normal – although using a condom during sex, especially with a new partner, is always strongly advised. There are even treatment plans for patients so that they can still have children and minimise the risk of passing it on.
And how exactly is HIV spread if someone still has traceable levels in the blood? Most people tend to know that it is spread by bodily fluids, namely blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Even so, it is only possible for HIV to be transmitted if these fluids come into contact with a mucous membrane, damaged tissue or are injected directly into the bloodstream. Patients can now also take medication which contrary to certain rumours surrounding HIV, mean you cannot get it from things like sitting on a public toilet seat, or closed mouth kissing, or a hug.
In 1987, the United States placed a travel ban on visitors and immigrants with HIV
However, the lingering discrimination surrounding HIV can still be seen, especially in America. In 1987, the United States placed a travel ban on visitors and immigrants with HIV. Unbelievably, this was only lifted in 2010 by President Obama. Due to initial false reporting on HIV and general discrimination in other areas of life which marginalised specific groups within society, there is still a misinformation surrounding HIV and this stimulates discrimination. Hopefully these myths will continue to be busted which will help those suffering from the disease to live their lives without complications. Medical advances are hugely important here. Each step closer to a cure means HIV is seen as a treatable disease not the result of a particular lifestyle. The greater our medical understanding the fewer false HIV rumours can be used as excuses for discrimination.