While awareness is growing, AIDS remains one of the most misunderstood diseases worldwide. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a complicated medical condition caused by a virus called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. There is no cure for the virus, however, treatment and prevention advances have been steadily in development since 1987 when the drug AZT was developed—6 years after HIV was first identified.
In 1981, the New York Times reported on a “rare cancer” developed solely by homosexual men . It did not take long for scientists to dispel this headline completely: a year later, the symptoms exhibited by these patients were given the name AIDS, and then in 1984, two researchers determine that AIDS symptoms are onset after infection with HIV. It is not until 1987 that AZT, a drug that combats the effects of AIDS is developed . While it does not stop the disease, early treatment with antiretroviral drugs, such as AZT, are critical in slowing down the progression of the virus, and delaying the onset—and slowing symptoms—of AIDS. Essentially, while not curing the conditions, drug therapy can actually make the presence of the virus “undetectable” in a person’s body fluids. More recently, it has been determined that treatment with these drugs can prevent transmission of the virus between people 
HIV is transmitted through person-to-person contact with body fluids, specifically blood, vaginal fluids, semen and pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk  This means that HIV can be spread through sexual contact, breastfeeding, blood-to-blood contact such as transfusion or sharing of infected needles in medical settings or illegal drug use—which is why programs that offer safe injection sites for drug users are important for population health. HIV cannot be spread through saliva [except very rarely if blood is present in saliva, for instance as provided by AIDS.gov, being bitten by someone who is HIV positive or has AIDS, or through pre-chewing of food by someone infected ], toilet seats, water fountains, air, or other casual contact, such as shaking hands, hugging, or sharing dishes.
Being HIV positive does not mean that a person has AIDS. Without treatment, a person who tests positive for HIV can avoid symptoms of AIDS for an average of ten years—sometimes over 15 years. However, some people’s HIV will progress to AIDS more quickly. Treatment with antiretroviral medicine, which essentially stop the replication viral cells within the body  . Taking these medications also helps to prevent the spread of the virus between mothers and unborn children, and through sexual contact between an infected and uninfected partner. However, as the virus may remain asymptomatic for decades, it is important to have a simple blood test done to screen for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and communicate honestly with your partner. While it is recommended that antiretroviral therapy be started early, it is important to recognize that the need to take the drug is lifelong, so patients must be informed and choose to begin treatment when they know they will be able to continue treatment in the long-term  .
HIV symptoms may begin within 4 weeks of infection and appear as flu-like symptoms, often described by patients as the “worst flu ever” as the body attempts to attack to the infection . Symptoms include fever, sore throat, rash, tiredness, joint and muscle pain, headache, and swelling of glands . The next stage of infection is known as the clinical latency stage, and a person usually has no symptoms—this does not mean it is not important to take antiretroviral therapy. If not on HIV therapy, the symptoms of AIDS will onset. Since AIDS essentially means that the immune system cannot fight any infections, the symptoms are infection-borne and include: rapid weight loss, recurring fever and night sweats, extreme fatigue, chronic gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, pneumonia, skin problems—such as blotches that may be of different colours—and memory loss, depression or other neurologic disorders or symptoms . HIV or AIDS can also make individuals more susceptible to certain types of cancers, dementia, or other illnesses that may lead to their death, however, it is difficult to tell if people die because of HIV itself, or other illnesses.
The good news is that HIV is much more treatable than in the past. While there is no cure, rates of transmission can be decreased with proper treatment, and with proper medical care, a person diagnosed with HIV in their twenties can expect to live into their sixties—since 1998, rates of infection with HIV globally have decreased, more people with HIV have lived longer, and deaths from HIV have decreased steadily since 2002—see the graph here.
This World AIDS Day, be aware of the realities of HIV and AIDS—which means being hopeful, and not fearful! Part of that is being prepared: if you’re HIV positive, be sure to wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace to stay safe and make those who need to be aware or your condition aware. If you want to be discrete about your condition, consider one of our leather band bracelets.