HIV/AIDS: Basic Facts for Educators
HIV is a virus. Illnesses caused by a virus cannot be
cured by antibiotics. (Although medicines may help to reduce the symptoms)
People who have a virus - such as a cold - usually get better after a few days or
weeks because the white blood cells of the immune system - which are
responsible for fighting diseases - successfully overcomes them.
When a person is infected with HIV, the immune system
tries to fight off the virus and does make some antibodies, but these
antibodies are not able to defeat HIV.
The person is said to be HIV Positive. Many people do not
feel ill at all when they are first infected. They may have no symptoms for a
long time. They do not yet have AIDS.
HIV acts by gradually destroying the immune system of
the infected person. After about 5 to 10 years (although much earlier in a
minority of cases) the immune system becomes so weak - or 'deficient'- that
it cannot fight off infections as it used to. (For reading sources, click here.)
HIV is found in body fluids such as blood, semen,
vaginal fluids and breastmilk. It is passed from one person to another - or
transmitted - only in very specific ways. These are:
* through sexual intercourse between a man and a woman or between two
* through infected blood - for example through contaminated blood
transfusions or unsterilised needles and syringes. (In most places
today blood transfusions are completely safe because the blood is
tested for HIV before it is used to treat patients); and
* from an infected mother to her baby while it is still in the womb or
during childbirth or during breastfeeding.
HIV does not spread through "casual" everyday contact
It is not transmitted by coughing, or sneezing, or by
touching or hugging someone who has the virus.
It is not spread in air, water or in food, or by sharing
cups, bowls, cutlery, clothing, or toilet seats.
And HIV is not transmitted by biting insects such as
mosquitoes, because the quantity of blood on their mouthparts is too
minute. (For reading source, click here.)
Eventually the infected [HIV] person may lose weight
and become ill with diseases like persistent severe diarrhea, fever, or
pneumonia, or skin cancer. He or she has now developed AIDS.
At the moment, in spite of much research, there is no
cure for HIV or for AIDS and so, sadly, it is almost certain that people
diagnosed with AIDS will die. (For reading sources, click here.)
The Role of Culture
Around the world a variety of cultural practices and
traditions increase young people's risk for HIV/AIDS. For the most part,
these practices and traditions affect young people more than adults - and
affect young women even more than young men.
In many societies women are expected and taught to
subordinate their own interests to those of their partners. With such
expectations, young women often feel powerless to protect themselves
against HIV infection and unintended pregnancies. Often, adolescent
girls endure sexual coercion and abuse. In Kenya 40% of sexually active
female secondary school students said that they have been forced or tricked
into sex (3). In Cameroon 40% of female adolescents reported that their
first intercourse was forced (313). Young women sometimes give in to having
sex for fear that, if they refuse, they will be raped anyway (205).
Wife abuse is widespread. In some countries more than
40% of women have been assaulted by their partners (119). Gender-based
violence is closely linked to HIV/AIDS (220). In Rwanda, for example,
HIV-positive women with an HIV-positive partner were more likely to report
sexual coercion in their relationship than were women without HIV (380). In
Tanzania partner violence was 10 times higher among young HIV-positive
women than HIV-negative women (220). Many women do not dare even to bring up
the topic of condoms for protection against HIV infection for fear that they
will be physically abused (381).
In many cultures, the premium placed on having
children often leads to childhood marriage and early childbearing. Girls
as young as age 10 are given to older men in marriage in order to cement
friendships and economic ties between families. When girls are married to
older men, they can be vulnerable to HIV infection because their husbands
usually have already had a number of sexual partners. Social, political,
and religious barriers often hide young wives from the world (423), while
their husbands frequently have other sexual partners (12).
Polygyny, the practice of a man having multiple wives,
occurs in some countries. In Africa, when the husband seeks a new, often
younger, wife, he may have sexual contact with a number of women in the
process and thus risk bringing HIV home (7, 12, 41). In some cultures, wife
inheritance is practiced - a tradition in which a wife is given to her
brother-in-law upon her husband's death. Thus, either partner can be at
risk of HIV infection if the other is infected. Younger widows are at
particular risk because they are more likely to seek and be sought by other
sex partners (6, 277, 321).
In some societies payment of bridal dowry is necessary
when a man and woman marry. In parts of Africa the man pays the dowry to the
woman's family. Once the marriage is sealed with the dowry, the woman is
considered "paid for" and often cannot leave her husband, should marital
problems ensue. Even if her husband's behavior places her at risk of HIV
infection, the woman may not be able to protect herself (119).
Rites of Passage
Cultural rites of passage from childhood into
adulthood, although traditionally serving to unite communities, can
increase risks for HIV. For example, traditional male or female
circumcisions are sometimes carried out using unsterilized equipment.
Researchers think that male circumcision reduces risks for HIV
transmission by removing part of the foreskin that is particularly
vulnerable to HIV. In some communities, however, circumcision ceremonies
often are accompanied by post-initiation sexual experimentation, which
increases risks for HIV (174, 350). For example, among the Maasai of East
Africa the relationship among male peers is so close that, after
circumcision, the initiates share wives and girlfriends.