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HIV: We all have a role to play

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the immune system and impairs a person’s ability to fight off infections naturally. As a result, the patient gradually loses their immune function as the virus damages and inhibits the function of immune cells, making them more susceptible to a wide range of illnesses that people with healthy immune systems can often fend off.

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“HIV symptoms can include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, rashes, night sweats, and weight loss.”

HIV symptoms can include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, rashes, night sweats, and weight loss. However, some people with HIV may not experience any symptoms for years. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested regularly and ensure early treatment to prevent the progression of the virus. HIV testing is a quick and easy procedure done through a blood test or a saliva test and is widely available at health clinics, hospitals, community health centers, and can even be done confidentially using an at-home testing kit.

If left untreated, an HIV infection can advance to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which causes the immune system to become severely compromised and highly vulnerable to opportunistic infections. People with AIDS often only live three to 10 years without therapy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Pakistan has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world. As of 2021, an estimated 160,000 people in Pakistan are living with HIV, with the majority of infections concentrated among key populations, such as sex workers (20.7%) and people who inject drugs (38.4%).

Many challenges plague Pakistan when it comes to combating the HIV epidemic. Of these, the most critical is the lack of access to accurate information and education about the virus. Sadly, many people in Pakistan do not understand how HIV is transmitted, and there are significant misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the virus. This often leads to a lack of willingness to get tested for HIV or to access treatment and support services.

Let’s look at some of these perceptions around HIV, the causes for its spread, methods of prevention, and how to care for HIV patients around us.

How it spreads:

HIV is a blood borne virus that is transmitted via direct contact with body fluids, such as blood, semen, or vaginal fluids that contain high levels of the virus. Therefore, unsafe sexual intercourse and contaminated blood can transmit the disease. In some cases, HIV can also be transmitted from a woman to her kid through nursing or during labor and delivery.

Busting Myths around HIV:

HIV, more than any other disease in Pakistan, is constantly surrounded by dangerous and non-vetted myths. In order to functionally tackle this overwhelming problem, it is incredibly necessary to address these myths and provide facts along them

HIV can be contracted by being around HIV positive people: One of most prevalent myth posits the idea that HIV can spread through casual contact, such as hugging or shaking hands. HIV does not spread through skin contact. In fact, since it is not an airborne disease, it cannot spread through being in close proximity with a patient.

Only gay men and drug users can contract HIV: Another myth is that only certain groups of people are at risk for HIV, such as gay men, or people who inject drugs or share injections for substance abuse purposes. However, anyone who engages in behaviors that can lead to the spread of HIV is at risk, regardless of their sexual orientation or background.

HIV is curable: Despite continuous efforts, there is no known cure available for HIV as of yet. However, medicine can help people who have the virus live long, healthy lives and vastly improve the quality of their lives as well. Treatment can even reduce one’s viral load to an undetectable (and non-transmittable) level.

Dealing with Patients:

Caring for individuals living with HIV can be a challenging task, especially if healthcare providers hold biases or misconceptions about the virus. However, it is essential that HIV patients are treated equally and fairly to ensure that they receive the best possible care and support.

Here are a few ways HIV patients can be catered to without any biases:

  1. Educate yourself: It is important for caregivers, and other people directly dealing with patients to have a good understanding of HIV, including how it is transmitted, how it can be treated, and the current state of research on the virus.
  2. Address stigma and discrimination: People living with HIV often face stigma and discrimination. Caregivers should be aware of this and take steps to address it. This can include creating an inclusive and non-judgmental environment and using inclusive language.
  3. Provide comprehensive care: HIV care should be comprehensive and include not only medical treatment, but also emotional and social support. This can include addressing the psychosocial needs of people living with HIV, such as counseling, support groups, and social services.
  4. Be patient-centered: It’s important to understand that each person’s experience of living with HIV is unique; each patient should be approached with empathy and understanding.
  5. Encourage testing: Regular testing is an essential part of HIV care, and healthcare providers should encourage their patients to get tested and to know their status.

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