What is HIV/AIDS?

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article

Alternative names: Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

HIV/AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

The virus is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse but can also be passed down from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, or acquired via blood transfusion with infected blood, the sharing of needles (e.g. during drug use) or through needle-stick injuries (if you’re a healthcare worker, for example).

Once you’re infected, the virus remains in your body for life. Although there currently isn’t a cure for HIV, antiretroviral treatment (ART) helps to keep the virus under control and enables people living with HIV to lead a full, productive life.

In addition, we now also know that ART helps to prevent the onward transmission of HIV – i.e. if you’re HIV-positive, and on ART, there’s a lower risk of transmitting the disease to others.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, life-threatening disease caused by the HI virus. The virus attacks and gradually destroys the immune system (which helps the body to defend itself against infection and disease). Without treatment, people with HIV become susceptible to a variety of opportunistic infections – so called because they take advantage of the body's weakened immune system.

These infections are unlikely to occur in people with healthy immune systems. AIDS develops during the final stages of HIV infection and is characterised by a CD4 cell count of less than 200 cells per mm3 or the presence of any AIDS-defining condition.

Strictly speaking, AIDS isn’t a specific illness but a collection of many different conditions that manifest in the body (or in specific parts of the body), because the HI virus has weakened the immune system to such an extent that it can no longer fight disease.

It may take years for the immune system to deteriorate to such an extent that someone living with HIV becomes ill and is diagnosed with AIDS. During this time, they may look and feel perfectly well.

This explains why so many people are unaware that they’re infected with HIV. But even though they feel healthy, they can still transmit the virus to others.

The exact origin of the HI virus has been a topic of much debate over the past few decades. We now know that, at some point in the 1970s, the virus began spreading across the globe, although it first came to the attention of medical authorities and researchers in the early 1980s. The virus was, however, born much earlier.

Recognition of the virus in the 1980s marked the beginning of the epidemic as we know it today. In South Africa, the epidemic started to explode in the early 1990s and, by the year 2000, more than 20% of the population had been infected.

Read more
Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

Reviewed by Dr Pooja Balani, MBBS (UK). Medical Technical Advisor at the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society. March 2018.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
The ANC's leadership race is heating up. Who do you think will be elected party president at Nasrec in December?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has got it in the bag
7% - 421 votes
I foresee a second term for Cyril Ramaphosa
82% - 5270 votes
Don’t discount a Zweli Mkhize win
11% - 718 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.