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Biology and Genetics - HIV/AIDS

HIV is a retrovirus that can lead to AIDS, a condition which severely weaken people’s immune system ultimately leading to debilitating and deadly infections. 

Infection with HIV (human immuno virus) has become pandemic, a worldwide problem. Each year, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) claims several million lives, with more than half of these deaths occurring in the region of sub-Saharan Africa. The main risk factors for HIV infection are:

  • Unprotected sexual activities;
  • Injection drug use;
  • Need-stick injury;
  • Homosexual behavior;
  • Blood transfusions;
  • Co-existence of other sexually transmitted infections

HIV targets immune cells, mainly CD4+ T cells in several ways.  When CD4+ T cell levels decline below a critical level, immunity is lost. The body becomes progressively more susceptible to a range of opportunistic infections like:

  • Skin rashes;
  • Sores and yeast infections in the mouth;
  • Herpes simplex virus;
  • B-cell lymphoma;
  • Recurring respiratory tract infections;
  • Tuberculosis;
  • Pneumonia

However, HIV infections are largely preventable with these measures: practicing safe sex, avoiding sharing needles or other injection tools, and finally receiving prophylactic antiretroviral treatments after exposure to the virus (post exposure prophylaxis or PEP). For those who are already infected with HIV, antiretroviral treatments can reduce both the mortality and the morbidity of HIV infection.  Screening of blood products and the introduction of safe injection sites also reduce the amount of HIV transmission among vulnerable groups. On a global level, the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, offers resources, guidelines and educational programs to help raise HIV/AIDS awareness and support including HIV testing, risk assessment, prevention strategies, disease monitoring, treatment, and program financing. Although the search for a vaccine is progressing, a ready to use vaccine against HIV could be more than a decade away.

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Contributors: Tracy Prentice; Fan Mo

Last Reviewed: June 2nd, 2010

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