Tuesday, 03 August 2010

About the virus

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a fragile virus and dies easily when exposed to air. Is this true?
This is a popular belief but it is untrue. According to reports of laboratory studies, the HIV virus survives for hours in dry conditions and for days or even weeks in wet conditions like in a syringe or multidose vial.

For how long has HIV been in existence?
The earliest known case of HIV was from a blood sample collected in 1959 from a man in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, HIV is likely to have been in circulation for many years prior to that.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS (Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome)?
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens the immune system, which protects the body from diseases. When someone is infected with HIV, their weak immune system makes it easy for them to contract other diseases and infections. The last stage of HIV disease is called AIDS.

Is there a treatment for HIV and AIDS?
People living with HIV suffer from opportunistic infections once their immune systems have become weak. These infections can be cured in most hospitals in the government and in the private sector.

However, there is no complete cure for HIV, ie, no medication to eradicate the virus from the body, though there have been significant advances in antiretroviral (ARV) treatment over the years. Antiretroviral medication does not completely destroy the HIV virus in the body, but significantly slows down the multiplication of the virus and allows people to live a healthy and productive life. The ARV regimen is fairly simple and the side effects minimal, but it needs to be taken life-long, so people should be cautious when starting the medication if they cannot be fairly certain of continued access.

The government of India started ART (antiretroviral therapy) centres in some parts of the country in 2004, where antiretroviral medication is given free of cost to those who meet certain criteria.

ARV is available in the private sector as well, but caution should be exercised as there are many untrained and/or mercenary ‘doctors’ who charge high amounts of money, promise cures and give short term courses of ARV, that is, stop when the medication takes effect.

Is there a vaccine for HIV/AIDS?
No, not yet. There are many challenges to developing an AIDS vaccine. A vaccine is basically a trick which involves killing or altering a germ or part of a germ so that it doesn't cause disease, then injecting it into the body. The body thinks it is being attacked and produces an immune response that will protect it when it is exposed to the real thing. HIV is a diabolical virus that disables the very immune responses a vaccine needs to trigger in order to work

Scientists have been searching unsuccessfully for an AIDS vaccine for more than 20 years and some of them believe that continued trials result in wastage of resources which could be better utilised for other forms of prevention. Nevertheless, there are currently 28 vaccine trials going on in different parts of the world

An vaccine offers one of the best hopes for ending the AIDS pandemic and could play an important part in sustaining AIDS treatment and prevention programmes. A preventive vaccine would stop the virus from infecting humans whereas a therapeutic vaccine would help people living with HIV keep the virus at bay and prevent it from completely depleting their immune systems.

Is India involved in AIDS research or trials?
In India, a vaccine trial was conducted in Pune by the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI) and another one is being conducted in Chennai by the Tuberculosis Research Centre (TRC). The trials are conducted with the support and technical expertise of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).

Six non-governmental organisations working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention in India have formed a National Group on Vaccine Initiatives (NGVI) to develop and test AIDS vaccines in India, by increasing community understanding and participation in the AIDS vaccine programme. NGVI plans to integrate HIV vaccines into existing prevention programmes of NGOs in India, develop a core group of NGOs interested in participating in the vaccine development process, mobilise communities by increasing awareness about safe and ethical vaccine development through widespread advocacy and information dissemination, act as point persons between communities and vaccine research team, and build linkages with global NGOs working on AIDS vaccines to share and learn from each others’ experiences.

(Compiled by Mariette Correa, an independent consultant who has been involved in HIV/AIDS programming for NGOs in Goa and South Asia)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008

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