HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It attacks the body’s immune systems, the thing that fights off infection and disease. If left untreated, it can develop into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). This is when the body’s immune system is severely compromised and common everyday illnesses – which healthy immune systems fight off with no trouble at all – can become fatal.
The first cases were noted in the very early 1980s, though we think the first cases arose in the 1970s. At first, there was a clear pattern: gay men were falling ill with infections that scientists couldn’t identify. Only in the mid ’80s were specialists able to identify the virus. Thousands of gay men died throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and there have been an estimated 35 million AIDS-related deaths to the present day. The gay community was traumatised and sub-Saharan Africa was (and continues to be) ravaged by the illness.
In 1996, highly active Antiretroviral Treatment (ART or HART) was developed: this drastically reduced the ability of the HIV virus to multiply and develop into AIDS. Huge improvements have since meant that HIV is no longer a death sentence by any means. Thanks to antiretrovirals, HIV no longer limits the lifespan of people receiving adequate treatment. Moreover, successful antiretroviral treatment can also suppress the amount of the virus in the body to such levels that it becomes undetectable and uninfectious.
This is why early testing is so important: catching the virus before it can multiply maximises our chances of stopping it impacting the person with HIV’s life, and the chance of them infecting others.