HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that affects specific cells of the immune system, called CD4 or T-cells. It is spread through body fluids, with blood, semen and vaginal fluids having the highest concentrations of the virus. After some time (after initial infection), HIV can progress to destroy so many of these cells that the body can no longer effectively fight off infections and disease. When this happens, HIV infection leads to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
Is there a cure for HIV and AIDS?
To date there is no cure for HIV. However, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chances of HIV transmission. It is important that people get tested for HIV to know their status early. ART and other medical treatment have the greatest positive effect if started early.
Who is eligible for ART?
Trained health workers will assess infected people and determine if they are eligible for ART. At whatever stage of the infection, health workers will advise and refer the infected person to appropriate care. Some of the groups that will be recommended for ART in Malawi include:
- All HIV-infected pregnant women, in order to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their baby during pregnancy, child birth and breast feeding;
- All babies born from HIV-infected women until viral tests prove that they were not infected during the pregnancy and breastfeeding period;
- Any child above five years or adult with a CD4 cell count below 500 per mm3;
- A person infected with HIV whose spouse is not infected in spite of his/her CD4 count;
- An HIV-infected person who, on the informed judgement of a health worker (based on specific available criteria from the World Health Organisation), has a serious opportunistic infection in spite of the CD4 count levels.
For how long does one take ART?
ART is taken for life. It is important that people on ART adhere to instructions provided by health workers. Defaulting ART results in various undesirable outcomes such as developing infections, death and increasing the chances of transmitting to uninfected partners (or transmitting to a baby if the mother is pregnant or breastfeeding).