By now, we all have heard tales about how HIV can wreak havoc to a person’s immune system – how it weakens the body’s ability to fight infection and certain types of cancer, how it triggers complications in various organs, how it can spread without either person knowing it, and that there is no cure to it yet. It is a potentially life-threatening disease and the fact that it continues to be a major global public health issue is, perhaps, the most frightening thing about it. Millions of people are living with HIV and hundreds of thousands die of HIV-related causes in 2021 alone. If you are not scared yet, you should be. And it should be the call to action that you need to seek, or at the very least learn, about the available HIV treatment options today.
To learn more about the condition, this article will discuss the following:
- What is HIV?
- What are the signs and symptoms?
- How is HIV diagnosed?
- How is HIV treated?
- What is HIV PEP in Singapore?
- Can HIV be prevented?
What is HIV?
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The simplest explanation for what it does to the body is that it attacks the immune system by “hijacking” the white blood cells (also known as T cells or CD4 cells) so that the immune system cannot defend the body itself against virus, bacteria, fungi, and other threats. As the virus impairs the function of the immune cells, the infected individual becomes immunodeficient.
HIV spreads when a person comes in contact with specific bodily fluids of someone with HIV, often through unprotected sexual intercourse or by sharing infected syringes or needles. When HIV is left untreated, it can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the term that is used to describe a number of chronic infections and diseases that occur when the immune system has been severely ravaged by HIV.
An HIV-positive mother can also pass the virus to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or through breastfeeding.
What are the signs and symptoms?
HIV symptoms vary depending on the phase of infection: primary, clinical latent, and symptomatic.
During the primary phase, or within the first two to four weeks after the body is exposed to and infected by the virus, the individual develops symptoms that are similar to flu – fever, body pain, headache, swollen lymph glands (particularly on the neck), loose bowel movement, rashes, cough, loss of weight, and night sweats. Sometimes, the symptoms are so mild that a person hardly notices them. However, it should be noted that the viral load or amount of virus in the bloodstream is above average at this point and as a result, the spread of infection is more likely during the primary phase than the next stage.
HIV remain in the body during the second stage (clinical latent infection), but only a few may experience symptoms or infection at this point. This stage can last for years if the person is taking antiretroviral therapy.
In the third stage, the virus continues to multiply and obliterate the immune cells. The infected individual will experience mild infections and chronic symptoms such as fatigue, fever, pneumonia, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, diarrhea, thrush or oral yeast infection, and shingles.
The last stage is the progression to AIDS. Opportunistic infections (tuberculosis, candida, pneumocystis pneumonia, herpes simplex) and opportunistic cancers (Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer, lyhphoma) are likely to attack the body in this stage as the immune system has been severely compromised. Advanced HIV medications can help ward off the infections but there is still a possibility that the person will catch one.
How is HIV diagnosed?
Rapid diagnostic tests that can produce same-day results are available in most hospitals and clinics in Singapore. There are also HIV self-tests that can purchased from drugstores, but in order to get a full HIV positive diagnosis, a confirmatory blood testing conducted by a qualified healthcare provider is needed.
How is HIV treated?
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is not cure yet for HIV, but it can be treated. HIV medicine called antiretroviral therapy or ART are now widely available in Singapore. If an infected individual follows the prescribed treatment plan, ART can help reduce the viral load to a very low and relatively manageable level. This is called viral suppression. The goal is to achieve an undetectable viral load, or a level of virus on the body that us so low that a standard HIV screening cannot detect it. In other words, HIV-positive people who are proactively taking HIV medicine can keep an undetectable viral load, thus allowing them to live long and healthy lives. Furthermore, they will not transmit the virus to their HIV-negative partners through sexual intercourse.
What is PEP HIV?
PEP HIV stands for HIV Post-Exposure Prophylaxis. It is a series of pills that you can take to reduce the risk of being infected with HIV. In order for this treatment to work, PEP must be taken within 72 hours or three days after being exposed to HIV. With PEP, the sooner you start it, the better the results. And remember: PEP is supposed to be used for emergency only!
Can HIV be prevented?
Limiting your exposure to HIV risk factors can subsequently reduce the risk of an HIV infection. You can do this by practicing safe sex, getting tested regularly for HIV and STIs, and limiting the number of sexual partners. You should be tested and treated for STDs (sexually transmitted disease) as well, because having an STV increases your chances of getting infected with HIV. And if you are at a high risk of getting infected (for example, you are in a relationship with someone who is HIV-positive), you should consider taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) every day.
In addition, you should never share needles or syringes with anyone, and avoid using other people’s razors or personal objects that may touch blood.
HIV is not the life sentence that most people thought it was. If you have been diagnosed as HIV-positive, aim to start treatment as soon as possible and make sure to take the medicines as prescribed. If you stick to the treatment plan, you are protecting both yourself and your partner from the possible complications and infections that may arise – plus, it will help you live a healthy and long life.
Dr Ben Medical @ Raffles Place/ Tanjong Pagar
SBF Center Medical Suites
160 Robinson Road
#03-09 SBF Center Medical Suites
+65 888 12344 | +65 888 12344