Dr Miriam Stoppard's Health Focus: Today: HIV/Aids - Why You're Safe to Shed a Tear
Byline: Miriam Stoppard
AIDS stands for "acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
While HIV is infectious, it isn't as contagious as some other viruses, such as the common cold or influenza.
It cannot, for example, be caught simply by touching and normal social contact, and isn't spread by coughs and sneezes. It's usually transmitted by the "mixing of body fluids" - mainly blood, semen and vaginal secretions.
The most common route of transmission is through sexual intercourse but, rarely, it may also be passed on via blood transfusions and the sharing of needles by intravenous drug users.
The virus is found in saliva and tears, but not in sufficient numbers to be infectious. HIV affects everyone, both heterosexuals and homosexuals. There are two types of HIV, types one and two. Infection with either can lead to Aids, although HIV-2 seems to be a less aggressive form of the virus.
As a disease, Aids weakens the body's natural immune system to such an extent that it's unable to fight off infections or control cancerous growths, and death from Aids - as in the case of pop star Freddie Mercury in 1991 - is usually from an overwhelming infection or rampant cancer.
You CAN'T get Aids through:
Kissing, touching, hugging or shaking hands.
Sharing crockery and cutlery.
Coughing or sneezing.
Contact with toilet seats.
Insect or animal bites.
Eating food prepared by someone with HIV.
Symptoms of Aids
Marked weight loss over a relatively short period.
Infections such as pneumonia, oral thrush, her pes simplex infections or shingles.
Dementia-like symptoms when the brain is affected.
Cancers, such as Kaposi's sarcoma and lymphoma.
How can I tell if I am HIV positive?
THE body's response to infection with HIV is to produce antibodies, though they may take up to three months to appear. You'd only be identified as HIV positive when antibodies are detected in your blood.
For that reason, if you take an Aids test too soon after possible exposure, it can be negative. It's better to take a test about six months after you suspect infection may have taken place.
An HIV-positive person doesn't necessarily have Aids. That may take up to ten years to develop, during which time he or she may remain well. It's therefore possible for people to be unaware they're HIV positive and to pass on the virus unknowingly.
How do I prevent it?
THE main route of HIV infection is through sex. It may be passed through both vaginal and anal intercourse.
Sexual transmission may be prevented, by the use of good-quality condoms. Spermicides kill the Aids virus, so they must always be used.
THEORETICALLY, sexual intercourse with only one infected individual is enough to pass on the HIV virus. As it's impossible to tell whether an individual is HIV positive from their appearance, precautions must be used with all new sexual partners.
INTRAVENOUS drug- users can pass on the virus by sharing needles and syringes, so always avoid sharing needles.
HIV has also been transmitted through infected blood products, though much less commonly now; the major group to be infected in this way were haemophiliacs. However, all blood products are now screened for HIV in developed countries.
ABOUT one in four HIV-positive mothers may transmit HIV to her baby during pregnancy and birth, but thankfully not all these babies get Aids. …