Aids—How to Fight It
AT PRESENT there is no cure for AIDS, and medical science appears unlikely to find one soon. While new treatments delay the progression of the disease, it is far better to avoid infection in the first place. Before we discuss prevention, however, let us consider how the AIDS virus (HIV) is and is not passed from person to person.
A person may be infected in four primary ways: (1) by using a contaminated needle or syringe, (2) through sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person, (3) by blood transfusions and blood products, although this threat has been reduced in more developed countries where blood is now screened for HIV antibodies, and (4) by his or her HIV-infected mother, who can infect the baby either before or during birth or while breast-feeding.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), present scientific evidence says that (1) you cannot catch AIDS as you would a cold or the flu, (2) you cannot get it from sitting next to someone who has AIDS or by touching or hugging a person who is infected, (3) you cannot get it by eating food handled, prepared, or served by an infected person, and (4) you cannot get it by sharing toilets, telephones, clothes, or eating and drinking utensils. Moreover, the CDC says that the virus is not transmitted by mosquitoes or any other insect.
Keys to Prevention
The AIDS virus lurks in the blood of infected people. If an infected person receives an injection, some blood along with the virus may be left on the needle or in the syringe. If someone else is injected with a needle that has thus been contaminated, the virus could be passed on. Never be afraid to ask a doctor or a nurse when you are in doubt about a needle or a syringe. You have a right to know; your life is at stake.
The AIDS virus is also present in the semen or the vaginal secretions of infected people. Thus, concerning prevention, the CDC recommends: “Abstinence is the only sure protection. If you do have sexual intercourse, wait until you are in a long-term, mutually faithful relationship, such as marriage, with an uninfected partner.”
Notice that for you to be protected, a “mutually faithful relationship” must be maintained. If you are faithful but your partner is not, you are not protected. This often presents a difficult problem for women who live in societies where they are dominated sexually and economically by men. In some lands women are not even permitted to discuss sex with men, much less to negotiate safer sex practices.
However, not all such women are powerless. A study in one West African land showed that some financially independent women were able, without violent consequences, to withhold sex from their infected husbands. In New Jersey, U.S.A., some women refused sex if the man did not want to wear a condom. Of course, while latex condoms can give protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, they must be used correctly and consistently.
When to Test
Karen, mentioned in the preceding article, could have done little to protect herself against infection. Her husband was infected several years before their marriage, and they married at a time when the epidemic and HIV testing were in their early stages. Now, however, HIV testing has become a routine procedure in some countries. So if a person has any doubt about his or her status regarding HIV, it is wise to test before entering into courtship. Karen’s advice: “Choose your marriage mate wisely. A wrong choice can cost you dearly, even your life itself.”
Testing may help to protect an innocent mate in cases of adultery. Since HIV might not show up on a test until up to six months after infection, several tests might be necessary. If sexual relations are resumed (thus implying that the adulterer is forgiven), the use of a condom can help safeguard against infection.
How Can Education Help?
It is noteworthy that though the Bible was written long before the emergence of AIDS, living by its principles works to protect against the disease. For example, the Bible condemns sex outside marriage, demands fidelity within marriage, and says that Christians should marry only those who similarly apply Bible principles. (1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4) It also prohibits all forms of substance abuse and the intake of blood, which defile the body.—Acts 15:20; 2 Corinthians 7:1.
It is wise to educate yourself about the risks and dangers that might be involved in contact with HIV-positive persons. Learning about AIDS equips people to safeguard themselves against it.
The AIDS Action League says: “AIDS in most cases is preventable. Until a cure is found education is the best and for now the only [community] defense against AIDS.” (Italics ours.) It is good for parents to talk frankly with each other and with their children about AIDS.
What Are the Treatment Options?
Disease symptoms do not usually appear until six to ten years after a person is infected with HIV. During those years, a battle rages within the body. Individual viruses multiply and kill immune system cells. Immune system cells fight back. Eventually, as billions of new viruses are produced each day, the immune system is overwhelmed.
Various drugs have been developed to try to help the immune system, drugs with complex names identified by letters—AZT, DDI, and DDC. Though some believed that these drugs promised dramatic benefits and even a potential cure, such hopes were quickly dashed. They not only lose their effectiveness with time but also cause dangerous side effects in some people—depletion of blood cells, blood clotting disorders, and nerve damage to the hands and feet.
Now a new class of drugs has arrived: protease inhibitors. Doctors prescribe these in three-drug combinations with other antiviral medicines. Tests have shown that while this triple therapy does not kill the virus, it stops, or nearly stops, its multiplication in the body.
Triple therapy has brought dramatic improvement in the health of those who are sick. However, experts believe that the medication works best when given early to people infected with HIV, before symptoms display themselves. When that is done, it may be possible to prevent, perhaps indefinitely, the infection from developing into full-blown AIDS. Since the treatment is new, it remains to be seen how long the therapy will suppress the infection.
Triple therapy is expensive. The average cost of three antiviral drugs plus lab testing is $12,000 a year. Apart from the financial burden, a patient on triple therapy has to make many trips to the refrigerator, where the drugs must be kept. Typically, a person takes some pills twice a day and others three times a day. Some should be taken when the stomach is empty, others when the stomach is full. Therapy becomes far more complicated when additional medications must be taken to combat the many other infections to which the AIDS patient is susceptible.
A major concern to doctors is what might happen if a person discontinues triple therapy. Virus multiplication would resume unabated, and those viruses that have survived the treatment may be resistant to the drugs that the person had previously been taking to fight them. Drug-resistant strains of HIV would be more difficult to treat. Moreover, these superviruses could be passed on to other people.
Are Vaccines the Answer?
Some AIDS researchers believe that the key to halting the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a safe, effective vaccine. Successful vaccines against yellow fever, measles, mumps, and rubella are made from weakened viruses. Normally, when a weakened version of a virus is introduced into the body, the immune system not only reacts to destroy it but also constructs defenses that will successfully defeat any invasion by the real virus.
Two recent experiments with monkeys have suggested that the problem with HIV is that even the weakened virus can turn lethal. In other words, the vaccine might cause the disease it is designed to protect against.
The quest for a vaccine has been disappointing and frustrating. HIV has remained unscathed by dozens of experimental concoctions that would surely have slain lesser viruses. What is more, HIV mutates, making it an elusive target. (Presently there are at least ten families of HIV throughout the world.) Adding to the problem, the virus directly attacks the very immune system cells that a vaccine is supposed to rally in defense.
Economics also play a role in research. There exists a “low level of commitment from private industry,” stated the Washington-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. This was blamed on fears that a vaccine would not bring in profits, since most of it would be marketed in less-developed countries.
Despite the difficulties, researchers continue to investigate several approaches in the quest for a successful vaccine. At present, however, it seems unlikely that a vaccine will be produced soon. When a promising vaccine does emerge from the laboratory, then follows the laborious, expensive, and potentially risky task of testing it on humans.
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Who Are Being Infected With HIV?
Worldwide, about 16,000 people become infected each day. It is said that more than 90 percent live in developing countries. About 1 in 10 is a child under 15 years of age. The rest are adults of whom over 40 percent are women and over half are between the ages of 15 and 24.—World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
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How Can You Tell Who Is Infected?
You cannot tell whether a person is infected just by looking at him or her. Though symptomless carriers of HIV may appear to be healthy, they can pass the virus on to others. Can you take a person’s word for it that he is not infected? Not necessarily. Many of those who are infected with HIV are not aware of it themselves. Those who do know may keep it a secret, or they may lie. A survey in the United States revealed that 4 out of 10 HIV-infected people failed to inform their sex partners of their condition.
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The Relationship Between HIV and AIDS
HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus,” the virus that slowly destroys parts of the body’s disease-fighting immune system. AIDS stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” It is the final, life-threatening stage of HIV infection. The name describes how HIV has severely damaged the immune system, making the patient prey to infections that the immune system would otherwise combat.
CDC, Atlanta, Ga.
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HIV testing before considering marriage is a wise choice