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In the past three decades, HIV/AIDS has become a standard part of our vocabulary, our news reports and our preventive care efforts. We know the basics of how the disease is transmitted, what causes it and the how the virus changes over time.
We even know how to treat some of the symptoms and have managed to transform HIV from a death sentence to a chronic disease (in many populations).
But in the early 1980s when doctors began seeing a rise in the cases of previously rare conditions associated with poor immune systems, and scientists began to think that a new strain of disease could be the cause, none of this information existed.
Many panicked. Stigmas and rumors ran rampant. Medical resources and efforts were wasted.
In the face of emergent pharmaceutical necessities, the international community separated further into haves and have-nots.
So -- even though we have come a long way, it never hurts to review the basics of what HIV and AIDS truly are. Continuing to examine information about the origins and history, the causes and risk factors, and the symptoms and statistics of this relatively new disease will help to keep us safe, healthy and empowered.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This fancy name basically means that the virus affects a human’s immune system responses, crippling the defense a person normally has against infective agents and causing him/her to get sicker faster and more easily than a healthy peer.
This type of virus is also called a lentivirus, which literally translates to “slow virus” due to the long time period between infection and when any signs or symptoms of disease are apparent. The virus is able to “hide out” in the blood cells, remaining virtually undetectable and biding its time before attacking the immune system.
This latent nature of HIV is one of the factors that made the virus so difficult to understand. Because symptoms developed at a seemingly random time in the patient’s life, scientists and doctors were unable to determine how it was transmitted -- through skin contact? through the air? from an animal or insect? from food? -- making it especially frightening to care for.