About the Virus

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

It is a virus that attacks the human immune system. Someone infected with the virus can live with HIV or be HIV positive for many years without becoming ill or showing symptoms. During this time however, HIV remains in the body damaging the immune system and the person remains infectious; able to spread the virus to others if a few simple precautions are not followed.

Over time, HIV can damage the immune system to such a degree that infections may begin to occur as a result of a weakened immune system. Eventually, one may acquire various illnesses due to the damage done by the virus.

When this happens this is called AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. That is, a collection of illnesses.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

In simple terms – you can’t catch AIDS. You can, however, catch HIV. Being infected with HIV does not mean that one has AIDS, but if left undiagnosed and/or untreated, HIV infection damages the immune system and can progress to AIDS.

AIDS results from the destruction of the immune system by HIV. The immune system’s function is to fight off infections and other diseases. If your immune system is damaged or not working well, you are at risk of life-threatening infections and cancers. HIV attacks and destroys the disease fighting cells of the immune system. The body is left with a weakened defense and not able to fight the disease.

Opportunistic Infections

HIV/AIDS and Opportunistic Infections

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the body’s white blood cells — specifically a subset called CD4 or helper T cells. This attack allows opportunistic infections to take advantage of a weakened immune system, and can lead to illnesses, cancers, or neurological problems. If you have HIV and develop an opportunistic infection, your HIV infection may have progressed to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But with careful monitoring, self-care, and treatment, you can prevent many infections and stay healthier if you do develop an infection.


Positive Prevention

Behavorial Interventions for HIV

Positive prevention aims to support people with HIV to protect their sexual health to avoid new STIs, to delay HIV/AIDS disease progression and to avoid passing their infection on to others. Strategies for positive prevention work best in combination with other strategies. Combined prevention strategies must include programs to assist people with HIV to take measure to avoid the possibility of exposing others to infection.

People with HIV have always had an important role to play in preventing new infections. HIV/STI prevention strategies have, however, often failed to respond to the specific prevention needs of people with HIV and to acknowledge their significant efforts to avoid affecting others. There is an urgent need to better focus on prevention among people with HIV

This is an important gap in the HIV response that the Collaborative Network of Persons with HIV (CNET+) is presently filling.

The importance of increased access to improved HIV treatment, care and support is critical in positive prevention. The challenge is to implement this in an ethical way that ensures the protection of human rights of the people with HIV in a reduced climate of stigma and discrimination.

Where HIV Opportunistic Infections Come From

A wide variety of germs can cause HIV opportunistic infections. These include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or fungi. Even before you have HIV, you have many of these in your body. But a healthy immune system normally keeps them under control. These are examples of other places where you can pick up germs that cause HIV opportunistic infections:

  • Unwashed raw foods
  • Soil or water
  • Contact with animal feces
  • Contact with other people, through unsafe sex or in places where germs are common, such as hospitals, day care centers, or schools
  • Contact with blood through sharing needles or intravenous drugs

Common HIV Opportunistic Infections

Common HIV Opportunistic Infections

Almost any disease can become an HIV opportunistic infection when the immune system is weak. Some are more common than others, though. And some are more likely to occur at certain levels of CD4 counts than others. Here are some of the more common HIV opportunistic infections:

  • Candidiasis (thrush): a fungal infection in the mouth, throat, or vagina.
  • Cryptococcus neoformans (Crypto): a fungus that can lead to meningitis, a serious inflammation of membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
  • Cryptosporidiosis and microsporidiosis: protozoa affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV): a virus that causes eye disease and can lead to blindness. It can also cause severe diarrhea and ulcers.
  • Herpes simplex: viruses that can cause severe genital or cold sores.
  • Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC): a bacterium that can cause fevers, problems with digestion, and serious weight loss.
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP): a fungus that can cause fatal pneumonia.
  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML): a virus affecting the brain.
  • Toxoplasmosis (Toxo): a protozoa that sometimes causes encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
  • Tuberculosis (TB): a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs and can invade other organs. TB can lead to meningitis at its most severe.

There are some differences between women and men with respect to opportunistic infections. Here are a few of them:

  • Men are eight times more likely to develop a cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma.
  • Women are more likely to develop bacterial pneumonia and herpes simplex infections.
  • Women are also more at risk for certain infections that can lead to cancers of the reproductive system.

Alcohol & HIV

There is no evidence that moderate drinking does any harm to people with HIV. However, if you have hepatitis or high levels of blood fats, then you may be advised to stop drinking alcohol or cut down alcohol consumption.

However, alcohol dependency is common among those with HIV and heavy drinking may affect your immune system and slow down recovery from infections. Studies conducted in both animals and in test tubes suggest that alcohol can interfere with the normal functions of various components of our immune system, impairing our body’s immune response to infection.

HIV-positive people who drink heavily and who are not on anti-HIV drugs tend to have lower CD4 counts (a measure of immune system function) than moderate drinkers.

While, the same difference in CD4 count isn’t true for heavy drinkers who are taking anti-HIV drugs, they are more likely to miss doses of their treatment than those who don’t drink. Alcohol can also damage the liver and a healthy liver is important for the body to process some antiretroviral medicines effectively. The blood fat increases caused by some anti-HIV drugs can be made worse by heavy drinking.

People who have hepatitis as well as HIV are advised not to drink alcohol at all, or to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. People whose liver has been damaged by drinking too much alcohol (especially if they have hepatitis) are more likely to experience side-effects from anti-HIV drugs, particularly protease inhibitors.

There are no significant interactions between any of the currently available anti-HIV drugs and alcohol but alcohol can react badly with certain medicines (e.g. rifampicin, rifabutin, metronidazole). It is important to check with your pharmacist that alcohol is safe to drink with any medicines you are prescribed.

Alcohol can cause vomiting. If you vomit within an hour of taking a dose of your anti-HIV drugs, or any other prescribed medicine, then you should retake the dose.