HUMAN IMMUNODEFICIENCY VIRUS
With this week being National HIV Testing Week, London Doctors Clinic is spreading the word on HIV. From information about the virus to commonly heard excuses for not getting tested, the ultimate goal is to stop it from spreading. We have all heard about HIV, but misinformation is dangerous, so these are the things we all need to know about HIV:
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, it is a virus which affects the body’s immune system and can compromise the immune system’s ability to fight off infections. People infected with HIV may go on to develop both common and unusual infections as a result. This late stage of HIV infection is called AIDS; Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
HIV and AIDS are often used interchangeably, however they have different meanings. Although there is no cure for HIV, thanks to today’s treatment, it is uncommon for HIV positive people to develop AIDS in the UK.
How is HIV spread?
- HIV is most commonly transmitted through unprotected sexual contact. 95% of new HIV cases in the UK were due to vaginal/anal sex without use of condoms (Public Health England, 2013). Rarely, HIV may be transmitted through oral sex or sharing sex toys with an infected person.
- HIV can also be transmitted by sharing needles or other injecting equipment with an infected person.
- HIV positive mothers can transmit HIV to children during pregnancy or breast feeding.
- Healthcare workers may be infected by needle-stick injuries.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of HIV?
People recently infected with HIV may experience a flu-like illness 2-6 weeks after infection. Symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Body rash
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Swollen glands (lymph nodes)
These symptoms may last 1-2 weeks and then a person may have no symptoms for up to several years. Even though there are no symptoms, however, the virus can go on damaging the immune system which may result in more long term signs and symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- Skin problems
- Recurrent infections
What To Do If You Think You Might Have HIV?
A flu-like illness is most likely not caused by HIV (there are dozens of potential causes for this group of symptoms!), however if you have engaged in behaviour which increases your risk of infection you should contact your GP or local Sexual Health/GUM clinic immediately and be tested for HIV.
The sooner you are diagnosed with HIV, the sooner treatment can be started and serious illness can be avoided.
If you think you have been infected within the last 72 hours, you should visit your local A&E department or GUM clinic to receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a month-long course of anti-HIV treatment that may stop you becoming infected. The sooner PEP is started the more effective it is.
A full blood test is the most accurate test and can diagnose HIV after one month of infection. At London Doctors Clinic, we can facilitate this HIV test with avery fast turnaround time of just 4 hours: patients attending in the morning should have their results by the end of the day.
If the blood test is HIV positive, you will be referred to a HIV specialist clinic to discuss treatment options.
Even though nowadays, with appropriate treatment HIV is a manageable chronic condition, receiving a diagnosis of HIV can be difficult to cope with. For online advice, counselling and information on living with HIV click here, or speak to your GP, HIV doctor or nurse.
If you are diagnosed with HIV it is recommended you inform your sexual partner(s) so that they may be tested. This can be a very difficult thing to do, your healthcare team can give advice on how to go about it or contact people anonymously on your behalf.
What Treatment is Available For HIV?
Currently, no cure exists for HIV, however treatments available in the UK mean people diagnosed with HIV today have the same life expectancy as people living without HIV.
HIV affects the immune system and in particular a type of white blood cell, CD4 lymphocytes. The aim of treatment is to decrease the levels of HIV in the blood and allow your immune system to recover. This decreases the risk of acquiring infections as a result of having HIV and developing AIDS. When HIV is successfully suppressed it can become undetectable in the blood, this makes you less infectious and less likely to pass on HIV to your partner(s) or baby, if you are pregnant.
This can be achieved using anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). A combination of ARVs is used so that HIV does not become resistant to the medication. Sometimes these may be combined into one single pill to be taken every day, indefinitely. It is important to take the medication regularly or the virus may become resistant.
HIV medication can interact with other prescribed or over-the-counter medication, it is important to check these with your HIV doctor, nurse, GP. Alternative, this you can use online tools for detecting HIV drug interactions.
HIV treatment can cause side effects, if you experience serious side-effects you should inform your healthcare team as treatment may need adjusting.
Being diagnosed with HIV can have a huge impact on your life, however it is important to remember that with today’s treatments it is possible to live a long and fulfilling life.
By Anna Kessler