Overview of HIV/AIDS
AIDS is a disease caused by a virus called HIV (short for human immunodeficiency virus). HIV attacks the body's immune system. When the immune system is damaged it can no longer fight diseases the way it used to.
People with HIV seem to be healthy at first. But after several years, they begin to get sick. Often they get serious infections or cancers. When this happens, they are diagnosed with AIDS. The most common cause of death in people with AIDS is a type of pneumonia called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia or PCP.
How Do People Get AIDS?
HIV is spread when body fluids, such as semen and blood, pass from a person who has the infection to another person. For the most part, the virus is spread by sexual contact or by sharing drug needles and syringes.
Otherwise, HIV is not easy to catch. It is not spread by mosquito bites, using a public telephone or restroom, being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person, or touching someone with the disease.
Medical experts predict that a cure or vaccine to prevent AIDS will not be found in the near future. So stopping HIV depends on each person's actions. You can prevent AIDS by thinking about the risk of infection before sexual contact. Use condoms if sexually involved with someone other than a mutually faithful, uninfected partner.
Treatment and Help
Treatment for AIDS usually involves medicine, such as AZT (azidothymidine). AZT does not cure AIDS but many patients use it to stay healthier longer. Other promising drugs are being tested. Doctors are also learning how to treat the diseases, like PCP, that strike people with AIDS.
People with HIV infection should stay in touch with a doctor who knows about the latest research. For help finding the name of an expert, call a local medical school's department of infectious diseases or the National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-342-AIDS.
Adapted from The National Institutes of Health, January 2000, Original document published March, 1999
Last reviewed January 2000 by
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