Worldwide an estimated 33 million people are living with HIV, including more than 1 million in the United States. As a foundation for understanding the global impact of HIV/AIDS, it is helpful to consider the biology and transmission of the disease, as well as how it can affect life on both individual and community levels.

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that can lead to AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Once a person is HIV-positive, or infected with HIV, he or she is permanently infected. HIV infects certain types of white blood cells, known as T-cells, which help fight diseases. Inside the human body, the virus attaches to T-cells and multiplies, destroying the cells and weakening the immune system. Eventually, the person's immune system can no longer effectively fight off diseases.

HIV infection becomes AIDS when a person has such a high viral load, or high amount of HIV in their bodies, and such a low T-cell count, that the immune system becomes too weak to fight off infections it would otherwise be able to. Being unable to recover from opportunistic infections, like pneumonia or tuberculosis, is usually the cause of death for people with AIDS.

At this time, there is no vaccine for preventing HIV infection and no cure for AIDS. Medications known as antiretroviral (ARV) drugs can however, slow the destruction of an HIV-positive person's immune system. Today, antiretroviral therapy can give people living with HIV a near normal lifespan if they stay otherwise healthy. Still, most people who are infected with HIV, especially those living in low and middle income countries, do not have reliable access to antiretroviral medications or necessary health care services.




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