World AIDS Day 2017: 7 frequently asked questions (FAQs) about AIDS

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Every year, December 1 is observed as World Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Day. Since 1988, this day has been dedicated to raise awareness about the syndrome, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes it and also remember and mourn the people who lost their lives to the disease. It is one of the eight public health campaigns marked by the World Health Organization (WHO) and since 1995, the President of the United States has made an official proclamation on World AIDS Day.

Two public information officers James W Bunn and Thomas Netter came up with the idea at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland in August 1987. They pitched it to Dr Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Programme on AIDS (now UNAIDS), who approved the same and agreed the recommendation of the first observance on December 1, 1988. The date was suggested by Bunn, a former television broadcast journalist, who believed that it would maximise coverage as it was followed by the US elections and other holidays like Christmas and New Years.

During the initial two years, the theme of the day focused on children and young people. Over the years various organisations have worked towards elevating the awareness about the disease. However, even today with vast spread of information there does seem to be many misconceptions and stigma attached to the topic. Here are some of the frequently asked questions curated by National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and WHO along with their answers:

1) What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. This virus is passed from one person to another through blood, using shared needles and sexual contact. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their baby during pregnancy or delivery, as well as through breast-feeding. People with HIV have what is called HIV infection. Most of these people develop AIDS as a result of HIV infection.

These body fluids have been proven to spread HIV, blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, other body fluids containing blood. Other additional body fluids that may transmit the virus that healthcare workers may come into contact with are cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord, synovial fluid surrounding bone joints and amniotic fluid surrounding a foetus.

2) What is AIDS? What causes AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. An HIV-infected person receives a diagnosis of AIDS after developing one of the CDC-defined AIDS indicator illnesses. An HIV positive person who has not had any serious illnesses also can receive an AIDS diagnosis on the basis of certain blood tests (CD4+ counts). A positive HIV test result does not mean that a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using certain clinical criteria (e.g. AIDS indicator illnesses). Infection with HIV can weaken the immune system to the point that it has difficulty fighting off certain infections. These type of infections are known as “opportunistic” infections because they take the opportunity a weakened immune system gives to cause illness. Many of the infections that cause problems or may be life-threatening for people with AIDS are usually controlled by a healthy immune system. The immune system of a person with AIDS is weakened to the point that medical intervention may be necessary to prevent or treat serious illness.

3) How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

Since 1992, scientists have estimated that about half the people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varies greatly from person to person and can depend on many factors, including a person’s health status and their health-related behaviours.

Today there are medical treatments that can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system. As with other diseases, early detection offers more options for treatment and preventative healthcare.

4) Why is the AIDS epidemic considered so serious?

AIDS affects people primarily when they are most productive and leads to premature death thereby severely affecting the socio-economic structure of whole families, communities and countries. Besides, AIDS is not curable and since HIV is transmitted predominantly through sexual contact, and with sexual practices being essentially a private domain, these issues are difficult to address.

5) How can I avoid being infected through sex?

You can avoid HIV infection by abstaining from sex, by having a mutually faithful monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner or by practicing safer sex. Safer sex involves the correct use of a condom during each sexual encounter and also includes non-penetrative sex.

6) How can children and young people be protected from HIV?

Children and adolescents have the right to know how to avoid HIV infection before they become sexually active. As some young people will have sex at an early age, they should know about condoms and where they are available. Parents and schools share the responsibility of ensuring that children understand how to avoid HIV infection, and learn the importance of tolerant, compassionate and non-discriminatory attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS.

7) Does male circumcision prevent HIV transmission?

Male circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV by around 60%. A one-time intervention, medical male circumcision provides life-long partial protection against HIV as well as other sexually transmitted infections. It should always be considered as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention package and should never replace other known methods of prevention, such as female and male condoms.

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