Know the facts to get ahead of AIDS, By Hannatu Musawa

Hannatu Massawa

HIV/AIDS has had a great impact on society; as an illness, as a source of discrimination and as having significant economic impact, as it has over the years, attracted large-scale funding and international medical and political attention.

The World Aids day, first held on 1 December 1988, is a day set aside each year for people globally to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS scourge. It is a day to show support for people living with the disease and also, to significantly commemorate those who have died from the ailment. The World Health Organization (WHO) have estimated that more than 25 million people between 1981 and 2007 have died from the virus, thus, making it one of the most deadliest epidemic the world has seen, and about 34 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV/AIDS.

The virus is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan African countries, having high prevalence rates, with South Africa reported to have the largest population living with the disease globally. HIV/AIDS has had a great impact on society; as an illness, as a source of discrimination and as having significant economic impact, as it has over the years, attracted large-scale funding and international medical and political attention.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is a disease of the human immune system caused by infection with HIV. For many years, scientists and researchers have theorized about the origins of HIV since it came into light in the 1980s. The first recognized case of AIDS occurred in the US in the early 1980s whereby a number of men in New York and California suddenly began to develop rare opportunistic infections cancers that seemed stubbornly resistant to any treatment. At this time, AIDS did not yet have a name, but it quickly became obvious that all the men were suffering from a common set of symptoms.

HIV primarily attacks the immune system, and weakens the ability to fight infections and disease, while AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection when the body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. HIV is transmitted mostly via unprotected intercourse, contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery or breast-feeding. Essentially, with early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS. Prevention of HIV infection has been primarily through abstinence and needle-exchange programs. It is a key strategy to control the spread of the disease. Overtly, there has been no cure or vaccine; however, antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy.

Regrettably, people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) are often discriminated against because of (often unfounded) fears of infection and because infection is negatively associated with promiscuity and drug addiction. Additionally, fear-based HIV campaigns have been known to intensify the stigma against PLWHA. They are particularly vulnerable to discriminations, as HIV remains a highly stigmatized condition. One in three people diagnosed with the virus would have experienced HIV-discrimination at certain points in their lives.

According to W.H.O, Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa countries, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Swaziland, Uganda, Zimbabwe, etc., is the most affected region of the HIV/AIDS pandemic worldwide, thus, having the highest number of PLWHA. One in every twenty adults is living with the virus and 69% of all people living with HIV are living in the region. It is a well-known fact that people with HIV-related disease occupy more than half of most hospital beds in the region.

In Nigeria, the HIV prevalence rate amongst people between the ages of 15-49 is 0.9%, and an estimated 3.7% of the total population is living with HIV/AIDS making her as having the second largest number of PLWHA; whereby, according to the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), the majority of people living with the disease are women, and Benue State tops the list of high prevalence rate in the country, followed by Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Anambra, the FCT, Plateau and Nassarawa respectively.

There are many risk factors that contribute to the spread of the virus in Nigeria, such as; high-risk practices among itinerant workers, high prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), clandestine high-risk practices, irregular blood screening and international trafficking of women.

Hitherto, as afore-mentioned, ARVs are the only drugs available in the management of HIV/AIDS. It attempts to control HIV infection by decreasing the patients total burden of HIV, maintains function of the immune system, and prevents opportunistic infections that often leads to full blown AIDS and death.

However, optimistically waiting a defining ‘Eureka’ moment, there is hope in the horizon for a cure for PLWHA. Ongoing researches are being carried out in the search for a cure of the pandemic in different climes worldwide. Consequently, after decades of the epidemic, there is now a renewed and expectant verve, as the cure for HIV/AIDS is closer than before. In March this year, a baby was functionally cured of HIV after physicians treated the infant with antiretroviral (ARVs) beginning about 30 hours after the child was born. In June, the New York Times reported at the 7th annual international AIDS Society Conference in Kuala Lumpur, that preliminary results from a trial in which two HIV-positive people with lymphoma received stem cell transplants and later stopped taking their ARVs have shown that as of now, neither of them has any sign of the virus.

On the 7th of November, it was reported that Scientist at the University College London had uncovered a ‘molecular cloaking technique’ used by the HIV virus that enables it to become invincible within human cells, preventing the body’s natural defense systems from reacting. This discovery can further assist scientist in finding a drug that can ‘uncloak’ the virus, thus, allowing the body’s natural defense/immune system to stop the virus from replicating.

On the 26th of November, it was reported by Imperial College London, that scientists and clinicians from five leading UK universities would begin a groundbreaking trial beginning from 2014, to test a possible cure for HIV infection. This impending breakthrough combines standard ARVs with two new weapons; a drug that reactivates dormant HIV, and a vaccine that induces the immune system to destroy the infected cells. The researchers expect to know the results of the trials by 2017. With these researches and breakthrough in the search for an explicit cure for the pandemic, HIV/AIDS would soon be a thing of the past in the not too distant future.

Also, there have also been burgeoning proven and practicable innovations in attempting to curb the spread of HIV, especially with regards to mother-to-child transmission. The transmission of the virus from a HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breast-feeding is referred to as mother-to-child transmission. Nascent innovations has been able to reduce mother-to-child transmission up to below 1%, by the appropriate use of HIV treatment during pregnancy and labour; by having a caesarean delivery if you have a ‘high detectable viral load’; and (when safe alternatives are available) by not breastfeeding. For instance, since 2000, in countries like Denmark, there have been no mother-to-child HIV transmissions when guidelines are followed. With regards to breastfeeding, effective HIV treatments have been proven to significantly reduce the risk of infection if the mother breastfeeds her child, as infection has been roughly estimated as 1 in 3 if the mother breastfeeds her child.

World Aids Day also brings about knowledge, awareness and consciousness of HIV/AIDS prevention. In Nigeria, HIV prevention involves the following:

Firstly, encouraging and promoting abstinence is an effective way of curbing the spread of the virus.

Secondly, HIV/AIDS pandemic can be prevented through the successful dissemination and delivery of much needed education. Successful delivery of alternative preventative measures, such as life-skills based HIV education and HIV/AIDS education initiatives, would definitely go a long way in curbing the epidemic, especially among youths.

Thirdly, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is very crucial, as a small proportion of pregnant women with HIV access antiretroviral therapy to protect their children. Improvements in the uptake of HIV testing, counseling and scaling up access to most effective ‘antiretroviral regiments’ amongst pregnant women are essential targets if the country wants to halt the rising number of children being infected and living with HIV.

Fourthly, media campaigns and public awareness of HIV/AIDS are practical methods of reaching out to many people in different parts of the country, as there is still a reasonable level of denial of the existence of the scourge among the populace. Electronic, print and social media can be utilized in achieving this aim.

Fifthly, sharing of needles and injecting equipment as already observed, contributes to the spread of the virus, and this is prevalent amongst drugs users. Reversing this trend should be a priority if HIV transmission through injecting drugs is to be minimized.

Sixthly, knowing ones HIV status can go a long way in curbing this pandemic especially in timely HIV treatment and care, and somewhat reduces the risk of onward transmission. In Nigeria, most people do not know their HIV status and are skeptical in carrying out tests until they get very sick due to the spread of the virus.

Notably, HIV/AIDS is no respecter of persons, age, race, class, wealth and gender. Interestingly though, other diseases such as Cancer and Diabetes kills faster than HIV/AIDS, while in Nigeria, road accidents kills more adults and Malaria kills more children than the virus.

Please this World AIDS day; make it your priority to know all the facts about HIV and AIDS. It’s important to know the facts so that you can get ahead of AIDS before AIDS get ahead of you!

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