Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that causes AIDS. A member of a group of viruses called retroviruses, HIV infects human cells and uses the energy and nutrients provided by those cells to grow and reproduce.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease in which the body’s immune system breaks down and is unable to fight off certain infections, known as ‘opportunistic infections,’ and other illnesses that take advantage of a weakened immune system.
When a person is infected with HIV, the virus enters the body, lives and multiplies primarily in the white blood cells.
The white blood cells are the immune cells that normally protect us from diseases. The stamp of HIV infection is the progressive loss of a specific type of immune cell called ‘T-helper or CD4’ cells.
As the virus grows, it damages kills these and other cells, weaken the immune system and leaves the individual vulnerable to opportunistic infections and other illnesses, ranging from pneumonia to cancer.
Some common myths and misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS
There are many myths about HIV/AIDS. Most of these myths are based on incorrect information or lack of sufficient knowledge about the disease on the parts of most of our nurses, doctors, health workers, relatives and even the media while some are related to the stigma that is often associated with HIV/AIDS and ignorance.
It has been widely believed among other things that a person with HIV or AIDS looks sickly; that only promiscuous person gets infected, that having HIV is the same as having AIDS, that HIV is a death sentence that an HIV positive person can not bear child….
In dealing with myths, misunderstanding and ignorance about HIV/AIDS, what can the media do?
The media has a pivotal role to play in all aspects of the HIV/AIDS response.
With its wide reaching infrastructure, the media’s ability to change the course of HIV/AIDS is practically unparalleled.
Besides the dissemination of information, the media has the potential to influence attitudes, behavior and even policy making in many ways through greater coverage of the epidemic.
The media also has vital role to play in disabusing the mind set of the public and even those living with the virus about its positives and negatives of the epidemic.
Dealing with myths….
In dealing with myths, misunderstanding and ignorance about HIV/AIDS, we must firstly begin to change mind sets and attitudes of our professionals (nurses, doctors, health workers, journalists, lawyers etc) about the epidemic that information about the virus are not misconstrued amongst the public.
The fact remains that most professionals, including the media have not had sufficient knowledge about the HIV/AIDS epidemic thereby causing panic in the public about the virus.
The truth remains among other things that people with HIV infection often don’t look or feel sick and they may not even know that they are infected.
In some cases, even those with a very low T-cell or CD4 cell count may look healthy.
When the epidemic began in the early 1980s, the first cases of HIV an AIDS were found among men who had sex with men (MSM) in major cities. Today, however, the picture of the epidemic is changing. Many new cases of HIV are occurring among heterosexual women of color, ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas.
While the number of new cases is still high among MSM, it is important to note that HIV is transmitted primarily through risky sexual and drug-taking behaviors and anyone engaging such behavior risks HIV infection, regardless of the gender their partners.
Being HIV positive and having an AIDS diagnosis are not in any way the same.
AIDS occurs only after a long period of HIV infection, during which the body’s immune system has been badly damaged and it is diagnosed when certain opportunistic infections are present.
Another aspect in the HIV/AIDS response that requires massive attention and the necessary awareness is the issue of stigma and discrimination.
In our subsequent edition, we’ll explore how individuals and organizations around the world can help reduce stigma and discrimination and what the National HIV and AIDS Workplace Policy says.