AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and is the condition that is caused by the final and most severe stage of the HIV virus. AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death among people between the ages of 25 and 44. This is an improvement. In 1995, it was the number one cause of death among people in the same age group. There is an estimated 35 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, including more than 2 million children under the age of 15.
What Is It?
AIDS begins with a person contracting HIV. In the initial stage of the infection, a person can display a host of flu-like symptoms. However, it is possible that HIV can go completely unnoticed for many years, with an infected individual showing no signs or symptoms at all. During the time that HIV is undetected, it is slowly destroying the body’s ability to fight off even the simplest of infections. The end result of this process, and the final stage of HIV, is what has come to be known as AIDS. With early treatment, the development of AIDS can be stalled for decades.
AIDS is defined by a person’s CD4 cell count, also known as T-cell count, which are cells that belong to the body’s immune system that detect bacteria and viruses. When the CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/ mm3, an HIV infected person is considered to have developed AIDS.
There are some symptoms associated with the development of AIDS. They include:
- Sweats (particularly at night)
- Swollen lymph glands
- Weight loss
Sometimes when a person develops AIDS, they don’t experience any symptoms directly associated with the disease. Instead, they find themselves constantly afflicted by ailments and diseases that they contracted due to their severely weakened immune system. Once the CD4 cell count drops below 350 cells/mm3, the following conditions can develop:
- Herpes simplex virus: this is the STD that most people think of when they think of herpes. This virus causes lesions in the genital area as well as in the mouth.
- Herpes zoster virus (shingles): this is the type of herpes that is associated with chicken pox. Even if someone has had chicken pox, those with HIV/AIDS are much more susceptible to this type of infection.
- Kaposi’s sarcoma: this is a type of cancer caused by the herpes (HHV-8) virus. This virus can affect people with any CD4 count but those with a low count are much more susceptible.
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: cancer of the lymph nodes.
- Vaginal and oral yeast infections
- Tuberculosis: a highly contagious bacterial infection that typically affects the lungs, but can affect other organs as well.
When the CD4 cell count drop below 200 cells/mm3 , the following conditions can develop:
- Bacillary Angiomatosis: this is an infection of the skin caused by the Bartonella bacteria, which can be caused by scratches from a cat.
- Candida esophagitis: this is a type of yeast infection of the esophagus.
- Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia: called PCP pneumonia, is a type of pneumonia caused by a fungus. This type of pneumonia was often what killed most early AIDS patients.
Once the CD4 cell count drops below 100 cells/mm3, these conditions are possible:
- AIDS dementia: this affects the mental functions of the patient.
- Cryptococcal meningitis: fungal infection of the lining of the brain.
- Cryptosporidium diarrhea: severe diarrhea caused by a parasitic infection in the digestive tract.
- Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy: a disease of the brain that is caused by the JC virus that results in a decline in mental functions.
- Toxoplasma encephalitis: this is an infection of the brain that is caused by the toxoplasma gondii that is commonly found in cat feces and causes lesions in the brain.
- Wasting syndrome: severe weight loss caused by the virus itself.
Once CD4 count drops below 50 cells/mm3 the following conditions can develop;
- Cytomegalovirus infection: this viral infection affects most of the organ systems of the body
- Mycobacterium avium: this is a serious blood infection caused by a bacterium related to tuberculosis.
There is no cure for AIDS. Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has been an effective treatment for HIV and has prolonged the lives of millions by keeping AIDS from ever developing. However, once AIDS develops, there is no way to stop it.
The AIDS virus is not what causes death. What causes death are opportunistic infections, such as those listed above. An infection that wouldn’t cause much of a problem in a healthy problem can be fatal to an AIDS patient. If left untreated, AIDS is always fatal. With treatment the patient’s lifespan can be extended, but not cured. Research is ongoing to find a cure.
The prognosis for AIDS patients is grim. Eventually a person with AIDS will die. Those who suffer from aids will, eventually, contract an infection that their body cannot fight off. However, thanks to HAART, this doesn’t happen as quickly as it once did. People are living for decades before AIDS develops, instead of the mere months or a few years that they lived in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Prevention of HIV is the best medicine. Hopefully one day research will provide a cure, but by preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, we can prevent the development of and deaths associated with AIDS.