Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Truth about HIV: How HIV Works

I've certainly learned more about HIV that I ever expected.  Before 2 months ago, I wouldn't even say that I knew the basics . . . I'd long since forgotten what we are taught in middle school health class!

I've studied the science of HIV/AIDS and read too many words that I can't begin to pronounce!  So for this post, I'll just be sticking with the basics of how the virus works. 

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and it belongs to the group of viruses called retroviruses, who have their genetic material on a single strand of RNA instead of a double-stranded DNA.

Like other viruses, HIV can't replicate on its own, but needs a host cell.  It's host cell of choice is a certain white blood cell, called a T-helper or CD4, which normally works in the body to fight off infection.

When the virus finds one of these cells, it attaches to it, forces its way inside, and takes over.  It begins to make copies of the virus until these copies destroy the CD4 cell and spread out in the body to continue this process.

The immune system is weakened as CD4 cells are destroyed.  Initially, the body responds to this attack, which is why people usually have flu-like symptoms a few weeks after being infected.  The virus is driven back, but can't be completely eliminated.  HIV essentially hides out, even for as long as 10-12 years depending on certain factors, producing little to no symptoms. 

But at some point, the immune system becomes so weakened that the person is vulnerable to infections that someone without the virus might easily fight off.  This is usually when a person discovers they have HIV in the case that they didn't already know.

With treatment, HIV can be managed effectively.  However, without treatment, HIV will eventually result in AIDS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and occurs when the immune system is so weakened by HIV that it can no longer fight off illness and infections.  These are referred to as opportunistic infections.

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), AIDS is diagnosed when an HIV positive person meets one or both of these conditions:

- The presence of one or more AIDS related infections or illnesses
- A CD4 count that has reached or fallen below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.  (A CD4 count ranges from 450 to 1200 in a healthy person.)

HIV Testing 

The most common initial HIV test actual looks for antibodies that are fighting the virus instead of the virus itself.  If this test is positive, another test will be done to confirm the positive result.

For babies, the antibody test can be deceiving.  An infant can have antibodies from the positive birthmother in their system, but actually be HIV negative.  For this reason, another test must be done after enough time has passed for the mother's antibodies to go away.

In our case, Easton will be given a different HIV test (PCR test) that looks for the virus itself instead of just the antibodies so there will be no confusion on his HIV status.


Is your heart heavy?  Mine too.  How can it not be after reading about how this virus does so much damage to an unsuspecting person?

After a couple of months of study, let's just say that I am so incredible thankful for the brilliant men and women who are giving their lives to study this complex disease.  So many scholars and scientists are dedicated and passionate, laboring hard to find a vaccine and cure for HIV. 

Please pray with us that this breakthrough would happen soon!

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