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Photo from mb.com.ph

From 2010 to 2014 my family and I worked in China with orphans. We fostered children alongside Elim Kids, a home that focused on care for children affected with HIV.  In China, HIV-infected patients face immense scorn and ostracization. Since then, my family has tried, where appropriate, to educate others on the truth of HIV.

According to reports, human immunodeficiency virus, abbreviated HIV, first arose in the 1920s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Given time, HIV may eventually transform into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, abbreviated AIDS, which medication cannot treat. Missouri in 1966 witnessed the first recorded death of an individual, Robert Rayford, in part due to an AIDS-defining illness. Starting in the 1980s, the epidemic spread through the United States.

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV is an immune retrovirus that attacks the CD4 cells of your immune system. CD4 cells, also known as T-cells, stimulate the action of other other cells to fight infection. Without CD4 cells, the immune system cannot fight infection. HIV infects CD4 cells, which then die too early for your body to replenish fast enough. When the number of CD4 cells in your body dips below 200, the HIV has developed into AIDS. Research has shown that HIV developed from a similar disease detected in West African chimpanzees, called simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV).

How does HIV grow?

If HIV enters your bloodstream, it binds to the outside of a cell, where it releases its DNA. This DNA merges with the CD4 cell’s DNA through fusion and reverse transcription. Integration takes the DNA to the cell’s nucleus, the part that holds all of the important information needed to sustain to cell. Long strands of HIV proteins form through transcription and the enzyme protease breaks the proteins down to make copies through assembly. Finally, in the step called budding, the new viruses push out of the cell and infect other CD4 cells. These new viruses taken a little CD4 cell membrane with them, which contains all of the information needed to attack more cells.

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CD4 cells (Photo from HIV Plus Mag)

How is it treated?

A person diagnosed with HIV must prescribe to a certain combination of antiretroviral drugs, abbreviated ARVs, to combat the virus. Antiretrovirals work against retrovirus drugs by attacking the virus at different stages. In the case of HIV, ARVs target the virus at each stage of its life cycle through assembly.  The Food and Drug Administration approves 31 ARV drugs, prescribed in combinations of three or four in antriretroviral therapy (ART) and highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). ART and HAART help not to destroy the virus, as HIV is not yet curable, but to reduce the effects of the virus on the immune system. Given the right combination of ARV drugs, an infected individual could have a CD4 count to equal that of an uninfected individual.

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Antiretroviral drugs (Photo from University of Bristol School of Chemistry)

Who does it affect?

In the beginning days, several misconceptions surrounded who could “catch” HIV. Many thought that AIDS only affected the “four H-club” – hemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians – but later studies revealed that AIDS resulted from untreated HIV, which could affect anybody.

The greatest obstacle to curing HIV is ignorance. Many have heard of HIV, but not as many understand the virus. Education in the United States today has reduced the stigma surrounding HIV, but still misconceptions run rampant.

The most common misunderstanding concerns HIV’s transmission. Some believe that HIV is contagious, contracted by breathing the same air as or touching an infected individual. However, the HIV virus cannot survive long outside the body, making this an inviable explanation.

HIV can infect a person in one of three ways:

  • Blood-on-blood contact with an infected person (including infected needles)
  • Exchange of bodily fluids with an infected person
  • During birth or breastfeeding
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Photo from Reuters

How common is HIV/AIDS today?

In 1995, AIDS caused the most deaths of adults between 25 and 44. With increased and better treatment, AIDS-related death has dropped, but HIV still affects millions worldwide. According to UNAIDS, a leader in the global effort to end AIDS, 36.7 million people lived with HIV/AIDS in 2016, including 2.1 million children. Most live in low- or middle-income countries, where education on and treatments for HIV are not as well known or not available.

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HIV is the dragon of disease, a dragon that has not yet met the knights that will slay it. The medical world has not yet discovered a cure for HIV, but it has come a long way since it began the battle. Today, with the help of antiretroviral drugs and education on what HIV really is, infected individuals can enjoy long and healthy lives.