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What is AIDS? - Intermediate

If you want to understand what AIDS is, you have to start with the immune system.

The immune system is the part of your body that helps to keep you healthy. There are a lot of cells in your blood that will kill viruses, microbes and other things that could make you sick. In a healthy person, there are lots of these cells, called "T" cells. If you don't have enough T-cells, you can get sick easily.

In 1979, doctors in America and Europe started to see many patients who were sick because they had problems with their T-cells. These patients didn't have many T-cells in their bodies. Doctors looked for the reason. They found that these people had a virus in their bodies. They called the virus HIV, which means Human (that means it's only in people, not animals) Immunodeficiency (immuno means the immune system; deficiency means there isn't enough) Virus.

What does HIV do?

When you have HIV in your body, the virus starts to kill the T-cells (remember the good cells of your immune system?). So, if the good cells die, other viruses and bacteria can take over. That's how you can get sick easily, because your body can't fight against diseases.

But! There's something special about this HIV virus. It loves to hide inside people! Usually if you have a cold or influenza, you sneeze, you have a fever or other symptoms. If someone has HIV, that person may not have any symptoms. He or she looks perfectly healthy, and goes to school or work, goes to the movies, plays golf and tennis, goes swimming or sings karaoke. But you can't see that they have HIV. You don't know who has it if you just look at a person.

How long can you live a normal life if you have HIV?

Well, that depends. Some people can stay healthy for 15 years or more. Others get sick in two years. Every person is different. But when HIV kills enough of the healthy T-cells, and you catch a serious disease like pneumonia or some kinds of cancer, that's when we say a person has AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired (that means you catch it from another person) Immuno (immune system) Deficiency (not enough) Syndrome (a group of diseases).

So HIV is not the same as AIDS. HIV is the virus that kills your immune system. AIDS is the time when you have very little immune system and you easily catch serious diseases.

How can I catch HIV?

The HIV virus lives in some, but not all, body fluids. There isn't any HIV in tears, saliva or urine. HIV lives in your blood, semen and vaginal fluids. You can catch HIV if these fluids enter your body.

That's all. The only ways to catch HIV. It's that simple. And it's easy to protect yourself.

Do you drink alcohol?

Here is something I want you to think about. When you go out with friends do you have a few beers, or a few glasses of whiskey? If you do, you are at more risk of catching HIV if you have sex. Why? When you drink alcohol, it is harder to make good judgements. You might say to yourself, "Oh, well, just this one time, I don't need a condom." Alcohol also inhibits your movement. There's more of a chance of tearing a condom as you open it, or not putting it on correctly if you've been drinking. Think about it. Don't mix alcohol and sex!

Can I catch HIV from having an operation?

Before 1985, many people who needed blood during an operation, or used blood products caught HIV because it was in the blood supply. Since 1987 in Japan, all blood and blood products have been tested for HIV. However, if someone donates blood during the "window period" (before antibodies have a chance to develop), it might not be found in the laboratory. So remember: YOU SHOULD NEVER USE A BLOOD DONATION TO DETERMINE YOUR HIV STATUS. If you have HIV and give blood during the "window period", you might infect someone else. However, today there is very little chance of catching HIV from a transfusion.

When HIV was first discovered, most of the people who had HIV were gay men and hemophiliacs (people whose bodies have trouble making blood; these people need blood products). But today that isn't true. In the world, 75% of the people with HIV are heterosexual (that means their sexual partners are the opposite sex, i.e. a man and a woman). Now we know that ANYONE can catch or give HIV to anyone else, man to woman, woman to man, man to man, and woman to woman.

Can I catch HIV easily?

HIV is a very weak virus. It dies if it is exposed to air, chemicals such as bleach, or is heated. You needn't be afraid of catching HIV in daily life. Remember that the HIV virus is only found in blood, semen and vaginal fluids. So you can't get it by shaking hands with business associates, playing with friends at school, touching or kissing, or using the same swimming pool or onsen with someone who has HIV (remember HIV dies in chlorine and a hot onsen).

Unfortunately, there still isn't a cure for AIDS. That's why it's important to protect yourself. Remember, ALWAYS use a condom when you have sex, and know who your partner is and their HIV status.

How does an HIV test work?

An HIV test is very simple. When you go in for the test, you don't give anyone your name. A small amount of blood is taken, and you are given a number. The blood sample goes to a laboratory. There, the blood is checked. You can't see the actual HIV virus, so laboratory technicians look for HIV antibodies. Your body starts to make antibodies to fight HIV within about 12 weeks. That's why you need to wait at least three months after you think you may be infected and then you can get tested for HIV. If you have a test before that, your body may test negative (that means no HIV antibodies were found), but your body simply hasn't produced the antibodies yet.

Then you go back to the test site about a week or two later, give them your number, and they will tell you the results. If your results are negative, you leave (promising yourself you will always be careful!) If your results are positive, the testing center will give you advice about what to do next. There will probably be another test to make sure of the results.

Why do I need to be tested?

It is important to get tested early. There is no cure for AIDS, but there are drugs which will help support your immune system. That way you can stay healthy and live longer. But if you wait to get tested, the HIV can start destroying your immune system.

If you have any doubts about your HIV status, get tested. It's a simple process and it's very important. You don't want to give HIV to someone you love.

If you test positive, stay calm. There are many groups and organizations throughout Japan to help you. You are not alone, and there are many people who care about you and will support you.

How can I learn more?

There are places you can call for more information. There are hotline telephone numbers you can call and you don't have to give your name. You can contact your nearest hokenjo for information about testing.

What else can I do to help stop the spread of AIDS?
There is a famous phrase:


One of the most important things that you can do is to talk about HIV and AIDS with your family and friends. All you have to do is ask them if they know the difference between HIV and AIDS, and explain it to them if they don't. That's all. You might also tell them how you CAN'T catch it. If you feel comfortable, go into more detail about how the virus is transmitted. Encourage your friends to use condoms correctly, EVERY time, from start to finish. And especially tell people you know that they don't have to be afraid of catching HIV in daily life.

Stop discrimination

Now that you know about HIV, you know that it's not easy to catch. People who have HIV need the love and support of people around them. You don't have to be afraid of being with a person who has HIV. Treat them with the same care and respect you show to other people.

The following hotline numbers are included here for your information. These are not the only sources. Check around for other numbers in your area.

Japan HIV Center

. Tokyo 03-5259-0255
Osaka 0720-43-2044
Nagoya 052-831-2228

This page found at: http://www.japanetwork.org/students/i-read.html.html

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