A Little about HIV and Treatment

AIDS Awareness

AIDS Awareness (Photo credit: sassy mom)

What is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)?

HIV is a virus that attacks and gradually weakens your immune system. HIV infects CD4+ cells, a type of white blood cell. As HIV-infected CD4+ cells are destroyed or impaired, the immune system becomes less able to fight infection and disease. HIV infection can progress to AIDS.

HIV Data (1990, 2000, 2010)

HIV Data (1990, 2000, 2010) (Photo credit: cmdelaserna)

Treatment of HIV infection without symptoms (asymptomatic) with three or more antiretroviral medicines (combination therapy, or highly active antiretroviral therapy [HAART]) is based on

  • Your general health.
  • Your CD4+ counts.
  • Your willingness and ability to take your medicines as prescribed. Following your antiretroviral therapy schedule is essential for successful treatment of your HIV infection.

Treatment guidelines suggest the following for people with HIV:

  • When considering treatment, experts currently consider your CD4+ cell count and the presence or absence of symptoms much more important than your viral load.
  • If your CD4+ cell count is below 350 cells per microliter (mcL), you should begin treatment to stabilize and increase your CD4+ cell count.
  • If your CD4+ cell count is more than 350 cells per microliter, treatment may be offered to help keep your immune system healthy and prevent AIDS.
  • If treatment is not started, your condition will be monitored with frequent CD4+ cell counts.
  • If you have symptoms of HIV or AIDS, you should consider starting treatment, whatever your CD4+ cell count is.
  • If you are pregnant, you should be treated to prevent your unborn baby (fetus) from becoming infected with HIV.
  • If you also have hepatitis B and are starting treatment for it, you should begin treatment for HIV as well.

 What increases my risk for HIV?

Most people get HIV by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV. Another common way of getting the virus is by sharing needles with someone infected with HIV when injecting drugs.

You have an increased risk of developing HIV through sexual contact if you:

  • Have unprotected sex (do not use condoms).
  • Have multiple sex partners.
  • Are a man who has sex with men.
  • Have high-risk partner(s) (a man or woman who has multiple sex partners or injects drugs, or a man who has sex with men).
  • Have or have recently had a sexually transmitted disease, such as syphilis or genital herpes.

People who are also at increased risk of developing HIV infection include:

  • Those who inject drugs or steroids, especially if they share needles, syringes, cookers, or other equipment used to inject drugs.
  • Babies born to women who are infected with HIV.

What are antiretroviral medicines?

Antiretroviral medicines are used to slow the rate at which HIV makes copies of itself (replicates) in the body. A combination of 3 or more antiretroviral medicines called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is the standard treatment for HIV infection. It is more effective than using just one medicine (monotherapy) in the treatment of HIV. This treatment approach offers the best chance of preventing HIV from multiplying and allowing your immune system to stay healthy.

 How effective are antiretroviral medicines?

The goal of antiretroviral therapy is to reduce the amount of virus in your body (viral load) to a level that is low enough that it can no longer be detected by laboratory tests.

The use of 3 or more antiretroviral medicines (HAART) does not cure HIV infection. But people who are treated with HAART:

  • Avoid developing AIDS, or recover from the symptoms of AIDS and enjoy a return to better health.
  • Have fewer opportunistic infections that are more common in people who have weakened immune systems, such as certain types of pneumonia.
  • Experience significant drops in their viral loads, often to the point that the virus can no longer be detected in their blood with currently available tests. This is the goal of treatment.
  • Have a stable or slowly increasing CD4+ cell count.

From 1995 to 1996, the numbers of Americans who developed opportunistic infections or who died from AIDS declined for the first time in the history of the epidemic. In 1996, the widespread use of HAART began. Experts believe that the use of HAART is mostly responsible for the continuing decline of deaths from AIDS

What are the benefits of starting antiretroviral medicines before symptoms of HIV develop?

The advantages of beginning treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) before HIV-related symptoms develop include;

  • Increased ability to achieve and maintain control of viral replication.
  • Delay or prevention of the weakening of the immune system. The risk of opportunistic infections-such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), Pneumocystispneumonia,(PCP or PJP) cryptosporidiosis, and AIDS dementia-decreases.
  • Slower progression of HIV to AIDS.
  • Lower risk of resistance to the medicines, if viral suppression is complete.
  • Possibly lowered risk of HIV transmission.

 Note:

Even with early therapy, the risk of HIV transmission still exists. Antiretroviral therapy cannot substitute for prevention measures, such as use of condoms and safe sex practices.

  • An increase in life expectancy

What are the risks of starting antiretroviral medicines before symptoms of HIV develop?

Not all the risks of starting antiretroviral therapy before HIV-related symptoms develop are known. The disadvantages of beginning treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) before HIV-related symptoms develop include:

  • Greater chance of serious medicine-related problems and side effects.
  • Earlier development of resistance to the medicines if viral suppression is not complete.
  • Limitation of future antiretroviral treatment options.
  • Cost of medicines, which may cause a financial hardship.

What are the benefits of waiting until symptoms of HIV develop before starting antiretroviral medicines?

The advantages of delaying treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) until HIV-related symptoms or AIDS develops include:

  • Avoiding serious medicine-related problems and side effects.
  • Delaying development of resistance to the medicines.
  • Preserving the maximum number of antiretroviral medicine options when HIV disease risk is highest.
  • Saving money by not having to buy expensive anti-HIV medicines.

What are the risks of waiting until symptoms of HIV develop before starting antiretroviral medicines?

The possible disadvantages of delaying treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) until HIV-related symptoms or AIDS develops include an increased risk of:

  • Illness or death due to a weakened immune system.
  • Not controlling the amount of virus in your blood.
  • Spreading HIV to others.

Your choices are:

  • Start treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) before HIV-related symptoms develop.
  • Delay treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) until HIV-related symptoms or AIDS develops.

The decision about whether to start antiretroviral medicines (HAART) takes into account your personal feelings and the medical facts.

Deciding about antiretroviral medicines

Reasons to take antiretroviral medicines

Reasons not to take antiretroviral medicines

  •   Delays or prevents weakening of the immune   system
  •   Slows or prevents progression of HIV to AIDS
  •   Lowers risk of resistance to the medicines, if viral suppression is   complete
  •   May decrease the risk of HIV transmission

Are there other reasons you   might want to take antiretroviral medicines?

  •   Avoids negative effects on quality of life, such as the cost of   medicines
  •   Avoids serious problems and side effects related to medicines such as   nausea, diarrhoea, or abdominal pain
  •   Delays development of resistance to the medicines
  •   Preserves the maximum number of antiretroviral medicine options when   HIV disease risk is highest
  •   Avoids unknown problems (not all the risks of starting antiretroviral   therapy before HIV-related symptoms develop are known)

Are there other reasons you   might not want to take antiretroviral medicines?

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