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Friday, 2 July, 1999, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
What is Aids?

HIV breaks down the immune system
There is still no cure for Aids, but a combination of various drugs can reduce the virus which causes Aids to virtually undetectable levels.Some people mistakenly believe the drugs cure Aids and this has led to fears that people are becoming complacent about the disease.

Aids stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. People with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) can look and feel well.

As the virus attacks the immune system, an infected person will be open to a large number of illnesses. This means there are a wide variety of symptoms.

HIV usually leads to Aids, which is diagnosed when a person has developed one of several opportunistic diseases associated with the virus as well as underlying immune problems.

The diseases include pneumonia, Kaposi's sarcoma - a form of purplish skin cancer not normally seen in young people before the advent of Aids - and dementia.

How is it transmitted?

HIV is relatively difficult to transmit as it does not live for long outside the body.

It is carried in the semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk and blood.

The main transmission routes are through sharing needles, sex, blood transfusions, transplants, getting infected fluid into open wounds and breast feeding.

High risk groups or behaviour

Certain groups are believed to be at higher risk of developing the virus. These include those who share needles and children who are breast fed with infected milk.

As the disease began in the West in the gay community, gay men are at higher risk than heterosexuals.

Sex workers and those who have multiple sexual partners are also at higher risk than average. People with other sexually transmitted diseases are also thought to be more likely to contract HIV than others.

What is the treatment?

If you want to know if you have HIV, you should contact your doctor or a sexually transmitted disease clinic about a blood test. They will usually suggest counselling before you take an HIV test to make sure you are prepared for all the implications of the result, including the impact on life insurance and mortgages. Aids organisations have reported that, in some cases, just taking the test can be enough for some companies to refuse you insurance or a mortgage.

If you test positive for the virus, there are a range of treatments you may be offered. The most popular is combination therapy, a cocktail of different anti-Aids drug, including AZT. The drugs can have powerful side effects, such as anaemia, and not everyone responds well to them.

People who take the numerous drugs have to stick to a rigid regime, but they have been shown to reduce the virus and rebuild the immune system. In some cases, the virus has been reduced to undetectable levels. However, doctors say it is too early to say yet how long they will last.

Stigma

Because of the way HIV is transmitted and the groups it has affected most - including drug users, gay men and people immigrant communities, it has attracted much media attention and prejudice. This has often made it hard for sufferers to come forward for testing. The all-parliamentary group on Aids says tackling the stigma of the disease is vital for reducing its impact.

Reducing the risk

The main advice from health promotion units includes using a condom for sexual intercourse. Injecting drug users are advised not to share needles. In many areas of the UK, health officials operate a needle exchange scheme where clean needles can be obtained free of charge.

History of the disease

The search for the origins of Aids has been dogged by political controversy.

According to the latest theory, published in Nature magazine in February and widely supported by leading experts in the field, the Aids virus first passed into people from a particular sub-species of chimp in the Central African rainforest.

Human infection occurred in the first half of the century as a result of people hunting and eating the chimps, the scientists believe. This practice continues today.

The international team, led by Dr Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama, say genetic tests show the main human virus, HIV-1, is closely related to a virus that infects chimps but does not make them sick.

They are now studying how common the virus is in chimps in the wild, but they face problems because the sub-species in which they found the virus - the Pan troglodytes troglodytes - is endangered.

Experts say there is evidence that HIV may have transferred to humans throughout history, but only became an epidemic in the 20th century, possibly because of increased sexual promiscuity, civil unrest and movement of people to cities.

Last year, researchers said they had found the first known case of Aids - in a Bantu man who died in 1959 in the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and home of the sub-species of chimps.

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See also:

27 Jan 99 | Health
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17 Mar 99 | Health
UK 'complacency' over Aids
01 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Aids origins discovered
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