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What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

AIDS is a medical condition. A person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections.

Since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s, an unprecedented number of people have been affected by the global AIDS epidemic. Today, there are an estimated 35.3 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide. 1

What causes AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, shortened AIDS, is caused by HIV. Some people may refer to AIDS as advanced HIV infection.

HIV is a virus that gradually attacks immune system cells. As HIV progressively damages these cells, the body becomes more vulnerable to infections, which it will have difficulty in fighting off. It is at the point of very advanced HIV infection that a person is said to have AIDS. If left untreated, it can take around ten years before HIV has damaged the immune system enough for AIDS to develop.

See our HIV Transmission page to find out how HIV is passed on, and our HIV Prevention section for how to prevent an HIV infection.

What are the symptoms of AIDS?

A person is diagnosed with AIDS when they have developed an AIDS related condition or symptom, called an opportunistic infection, or an AIDS related cancer. The infections are called ‘opportunistic’ because they take advantage of the opportunity offered by a weakened immune system.

It is possible for someone to be diagnosed with AIDS even if they have not developed an opportunistic infection. AIDS can be diagnosed when the number of immune system cells (CD4 cells) in the blood of an HIV positive person drops below a certain level.

Is there a cure for AIDS?

Worryingly, many people think there is a 'cure' for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS - which perhaps makes them take risks that they otherwise wouldn't. However, there is still no cure for HIV. The only way to ensure that you avoid AIDS is to be aware of how HIV is transmitted and how to prevent HIV infection.

However, people can take antiretroviral treatment, which suppresses the HIV virus. This can prevent them from reaching a point where they are diagnosed with AIDS. Also, in some cases, it is possible for a person who has an AIDS diagnosis to regain a strong immune system with antiretroviral therapy. However, once somebody is diagnosed with AIDS, officially they keep this diagnosis for life even though in reality an opportunistic infection may be cured or the number of immune system cells (CD4 cells) in their blood may increase to recommended levels. 2

How many people have died from AIDS?

Since the first cases of AIDS were identified in 1981, more than 30 million people have died from AIDS. An estimated 1.7 million people died as a result of AIDS in 2011 alone.

Although there is no cure for AIDS, HIV infection can be prevented, and those living with HIV can take antiretroviral drugs to prevent or delay the onset of AIDS. However, in many countries across the world access to prevention and treatment services is limited. Global leaders have pledged to work towards universal access to HIV prevention and care, so that millions of deaths can be averted.

How is AIDS treated?

HIV Treatment Antiretroviral treatment can significantly prolong the lives of people living with HIV. Modern combination therapy is highly effective and someone with HIV who is taking treatment could live for the rest of their life without developing AIDS.

An AIDS diagnosis does not necessarily equate to a death sentence. Many people can still benefit from starting antiretroviral therapy even once they have developed an AIDS defining illness. Better treatment and prevention for opportunistic infections have also helped to improve the quality and length of life for those diagnosed with AIDS.

Treating some opportunistic infections is easier than others. Infections such as herpes zoster and candidiasis of the mouth, throat or vagina, can be managed effectively in most environments. On the other hand, more complex infections such as toxoplasmosis, need advanced medical equipment and infrastructure, which are lacking in many resource-poor areas.

It is also important that treatment is provided for AIDS related pain, which is experienced by almost all people in the very advanced stages of HIV infection.

Why do people still develop AIDS today?

Even though antiretroviral treatment can prevent the onset of AIDS in a person living with HIV, many people are still diagnosed with AIDS today. There are four main reasons for this:

  • In many resource-poor countries antiretroviral treatment is not widely available. Even in wealthier countries, such as America, many individuals are not covered by health insurance and cannot afford treatment.
  • Some people who became infected with HIV in the early years of the epidemic before combination therapy was available, have subsequently developed drug resistance and therefore have limited treatment options.
  • Many people are never tested for HIV and only become aware they are infected with the virus once they have developed an AIDS related illness. These people are at a higher risk of mortality, as they tend to respond less well to treatment at this stage.
  • Sometimes people taking treatment are unable to adhere to, or tolerate the side effects of drugs.

Caring for a person with AIDS

In the later stages of AIDS, a person will need palliative care and emotional support. In many parts of the world, friends, family and AIDS organisations provide home based care. This is particularly the case in countries with high HIV prevalence and overstretched healthcare systems.

End of life care becomes necessary when a person has reached the very final stages of AIDS. At this stage, preparing for death and open discussion about whether a person is going to die often helps in addressing concerns and ensuring final wishes are followed.

The global AIDS epidemic

Around 2.5 million people became infected with HIV in 2011. Sub-Saharan Africa has been hardest hit by the epidemic; in 2011 over two-thirds of AIDS deaths were in this region.

The epidemic has had a devastating impact on societies, economies and infrastructures. In countries most severely affected, life expectancy has been reduced by as much as 20 years. Young adults in their productive years are the most at-risk population, so many countries have faced a slow-down in economic growth and an increase in household poverty. HIV and AIDS in Asia causes a greater loss of productivity than any other disease. An adult's most productive years are also their most reproductive and so many of the age group who have died from AIDS have left children behind. In sub-Saharan Africa the AIDS epidemic has orphaned nearly 15 million children.

In recent years, the response to the epidemic has been intensified; from 2002-2008 spending on HIV and AIDS in low- and middle-income countries increased 6-fold. Since 2008, spending has not increased so substantially, but it is still significantly higher than it was before 2002. The number of people on antiretroviral treatment has increased, the annual number of AIDS deaths has declined, and the global percentage of people infected with HIV has stabilised.

However, recent achievements should not lead to complacent attitudes. In all parts of the world, people living with HIV still face AIDS related stigma and discrimination, and many people still cannot access sufficient HIV treatment and care. In Eastern Europe infection rates are rising, and in Western Europe and America there are still tens of thousands of new infections each year - indicating that HIV prevention is just as important now as it ever has been. Prevention efforts that have proved to be effective need to be scaled-up and treatment targets reached. Commitments from national governments right down to the community level need to be intensified and subsequently met, so that one day the world might see an end to the global AIDS epidemic.

Learn more about HIV and AIDS

In addition to the hundreds of informative pages about HIV and AIDS, the AVERT website has interactive ways to learn more about HIV and AIDS.

  • The AVERT AIDS Game is a great way to see how much you know about HIV and AIDS.
  • You can test your knowledge of HIV and AIDS by trying one of our online quizzes.
  • Our photo gallery has hundreds of HIV and AIDS related photos from around the world.
  • The AVERT video gallery has a number of short videos related to HIV and AIDS.
  • Finally, you can read stories that have been sent to us from people who are either living with HIV or who have been affected by HIV and AIDS.

 

References

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