What is HIV?

By Connie Chen, Microbiology, ’16

Scope

This article was inspired by a friend who is an International Relations and Economics major. She was interested in the science behind HIV and AIDS because she only knew about the stigma carried with being infected with HIV and that it is an incurable virus. After talking to my friend for a few hours, I realized that many people don’t know too much about HIV besides how it spreads and that there is no current cure. My friend was amazed by how complicated HIV was and hopes that future policies about HIV and AIDS will have more background information rather than going with public opinion about the virus. The overarching goal of the paper is to inform the reader about what HIV and AIDS is, what HIV does to the human body, and what treatments are currently available. I hope that you, the reader, will be able to carry out some form of conversation about HIV and AIDS after reading this article.

Introduction

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that causes the depletion of white blood cells involved in the immune system. HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, such as blood, and has killed more than 25 million people worldwide since its discovery in 1981 (Barmania et al., 2013). It is important to note that having HIV does not automatically mean a person will be diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a condition in humans in which progressive failure of the immune system allows deadly diseases or opportunistic pathogens thrive and eventually kill the host. When white blood cells have fallen below a certain level, then a healthcare professional may diagnose the patient with AIDS. According to AIDS.gov, over 35 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV or AIDS.

What does HIV do to the body?

Whenever there is a threat to the body, such as a bacterial or viral infection, the immune system is able to detect and react to the situation. Once the cells of the immune system detect the threat, they are able to undergo selective divisions that increase the ability to identify the threat, and then initiate an immune response. Following these infections, the cells able to contain and eliminate the threat remain in the body as memory cells. These memory cells allow the immune system to initiate its defenses effectively when encountering the same threat, even years after initial infection (Parham, 2014). HIV attacks the immune system and compromises it. Every time HIV attacks the body, the number of white blood cells in a person significantly drops. The decreased number of white blood cells weakens the host’s immune system and the host becomes more susceptible to other diseases and is less able to defend against them. Diseases such as the common cold, which a healthy adult can overcome in a few days, become deadly because the immune system is weakened.

HIV is difficult to eradicate because HIV’s replication process leads to different variations, making it a master of disguise. It was found that HIV has different techniques it uses in order to “hide” inside white blood cells until the virus decides to replicate and divide (Stevenson et al., 1990). HIV will continue use the host’s cells in order to replicate by producing viral proteins and assembling them into new viruses. Its ability to effectively mutate allows it to evade the fast immune attack from the immune system because it has no memory of the “new” virus. The immune system must learn to recognize and fight a different version of the virus. However, during this time, the number of white blood cells decreases significantly and the host struggles to fight off other diseases. In summary, HIV destroys the human immune system internally making the host susceptible to opportunistic pathogens, and if the number of white blood cells is low enough, the host may be diagnosed with AIDS.

Treatment(s) Available

Although there is no cure for HIV, being infected with the virus is not a death sentence. The most effective treatment available is antiretroviral therapy (ART), which can significantly prolong the lives of people who are HIV-positive by using a combination of antiretroviral drugs in order to suppress the virus. In fact, with the continuous use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), most patients treated with ART live normal lives. However, suppressing the virus is only temporary and continuous treatment is necessary in order to prevent HIV from returning. Researchers are currently on the search for a less dependent treatment and more importantly, a vaccine.

Takeaway

When HIV and AIDS were first appeared in the 1980’s, it was a very mysterious disease. It baffled many doctors, and scared the general public because it looked like healthy, young individuals were prematurely passing away for unexplained reasons. Fear is a dangerous emotion, and the fear surrounding the epidemic has resulted in the creation of many myths about HIV and AIDS, as well as negative attitudes towards those infected. Because HIV can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, HIV is often associated with behaviors people disapprove of, such as irresponsible drug use and immoral sexual behavior.

Becoming more knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS can make us more aware and understanding of what someone who is HIV positive is going through and prevent HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Although HIV and AIDS is a large and active area of research, there is still no known cure as of today. Further studies are needed in order for the discovery of potential treatments and vaccines for HIV in the future. However, we can be educated about the topic of HIV and AIDS. Education about HIV and AIDS is important because of its prevalence in the world, and the best way to prevent the physical spread of HIV is by understanding the science behind it.

References

AIDS.gov. 2014. What is HIV/AIDS? < https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/what-is-hiv-aids/> Web. Accessed 29, July 2015.

Barmania, Fatima. Pepper, Michael S. 2013. C-C chemokine receptor five (CCR5): An emerging target for the control of HIV infection. 30 June 2015.

Parham, Peter. 2014. The Immune System, 4th ed. Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, New York, NY.

Stevenson et al., 1990. HIV-1 replication is controlled at the level of T cell activation and proviral integration.

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