How to Understand AIDS

HIV Particle. Science Photo Library - PASIEKA/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

What is AIDS?

That's a great question, because in many ways AIDS is harder to understand than the flu, herpes, or most other health conditions. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The most important word in that acronym may be syndrome, because AIDS isn't a disease in the way most people think of diseases. Instead, AIDS is a definition. You have AIDS when you are infected with HIV and when your body fits certain criteria that indicate you are immunocompromised.

What is AIDS if it isn't HIV?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, having AIDS is not the same thing as being infected with HIV, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Although it is true that HIV can, and usually does, lead to AIDS, ​not everyone who has HIV has AIDS. In fact, you can have HIV for years before you develop AIDS -- or you can have HIV and never develop AIDS at all. This is particularly true now that there are a number of highly effective treatments for HIV. People can live long, healthy lives with HIV and never progress to AIDS.

The definition of AIDS changes over time, but it can basically be summed up as follows:

A person has AIDS if they are infected with HIV and they are severely immunocompromised -- to the point where either the biological markers that describe the health of their immune system (e.g. CD4 count) reach the levels that are defined as AIDS or they have an opportunistic infection that is on the AIDS-definition list.

This is why the word syndrome is so important in the name AIDS: A syndrome is defined by its component parts rather than by infection with a single organism -- and the question of what is AIDS can not be simply summed up by infection with HIV. It is not the HIV infection that makes AIDS patients feel sick, but rather the other infections for which the immune system damage from HIV has put them at risk

What is AIDS in the 21st Century?

Our understanding of AIDS has changed markedly over time -- a fact illustrated by the history of HIV vaccine development. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the short answer to the question "What is AIDS?" was, "A death sentence," but now AIDS is more often seen as a chronic disease.

Today, in places where highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART) are readily available, people with HIV and AIDS are living long, full lives, and are even choosing to have children. It is not just the definition of AIDS that has changed over time, but the experience of living with it.

In Conclusion: What is AIDS?

  • AIDS is a syndrome caused by how the Human Immunodeficiency Virus affects the immune system.
  • AIDS is an illness that can affect anyone -- straight/gay, Black/White, young/old, and everyone in between.
  • AIDS is a condition which can be prevented by changes in behavior that include regular HIV testing and the consistent practice of safe sex.
  • AIDS is a disease that is unfortunately associated with inordinate amounts of social stigma, which can make it difficult to teach people about prevention.
  • AIDS is not a moral judgment.
  • AIDS is not a universal outcome of HIV infection, particularly in the age of combination antiretroviral therapy.

    Continue Reading