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AIDS and Cancer: A Look at the Global Impact and More - CancerMitr

AIDS and Cancer

AIDS is a terrifying disease that attacks one’s natural ability to fight various diseases, including cancer. It was first reported in 1981, and since then, a staggering 85.6 million individuals have fallen prey to HIV, with approximately 40.4 million lives tragically claimed by this devastating disease. It is the most reported disease in African nations like Botswana, Eswatini, South Africa and more. In fact, a survey revealed that 40% of adults living in Botswana have HIV infection, which causes AIDS. 

In India, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu account for 55% of all HIV infections reported in the country. According to National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), though more men suffer from the disease when compared to women, the number of women with the are also increasing over the last decade. 
How is AIDS linked to cancer? How can the disease be prevented?

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What is AIDS?  

AIDS, short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is a debilitating condition stemming from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This viral infection specifically targets the immune system, leading to a compromised ability to fend off infections and a diminished count of white blood cells (WBC). The hallmark of AIDS is a weakened immune system, making the afflicted person susceptible to a range of infections and illnesses, including cancer. 

It is important to know that HIV infection does not immediately lead to AIDS. AIDS is a stage of the infection. The progression from HIV infection to AIDS signifies the advanced stage of the disease, marked by a severely compromised immune system.

How do people get AIDS? How is the HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted between individuals through various bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal secretions, mucous, and breast milk. Given its transmission through sexual activities, HIV is categorized as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). AIDS, the disease resulting from advanced HIV infection, is termed a sexually transmitted disease (STD). 

It is crucial to emphasize that HIV is not transmitted through the exchange of saliva. Although an HIV-positive person may carry the virus in their saliva, the antibodies and enzymes present in the saliva of a healthy individual effectively neutralize the HIV virus, preventing its entry into the body. Currently, there is no documented case of HIV transmission through activities like lip kissing that involve salivary exchange. 

Beyond sexual contact, HIV can be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It’s transmission can occur through contaminated blood, such as in the case of blood transfusions. Understanding the modes of transmission is paramount in implementing preventive measures and raising awareness about how the virus spreads.

HIV in blood stream

What are the symptoms of HIV infection and the resulting AIDS? 

HIV infection progresses through three distinct stages, each characterized by varying levels of severity: acute HIV, clinical latency, and AIDS.

  1. Stage 1 or acute HIV
    Symptoms of acute HIV show up about a week or two after the infection. The symptoms resemble a typical flu;
    – Night sweats
    – Chills
    – Fever
    – Mouth ulcer
    – Sore throat
    – Muscle ache
    – Fatigue
    – Rashes
    – Mouth ulcers
    – Swollen lymph nodes
    Most of these symptoms can disappear after those treatment processes that are typically given for fever or flu. It is also possible that an infected individual doesn’t experience any symptoms until they touch the second or third stage of an HIV infection.

    2. Stage 2 or clinical latency
    In the clinical latency phase, the virus replicates at low levels, often displaying symptoms other than the ones mentioned in the acute stage. Clinical latency is also known as chronic HIV infection. Individuals with the infection have to get themselves treated before it progresses to AIDS. The clinical latency stage can last as long as a decade.

    3. Stage 3 or AIDS
    Once the virus multiplies and attacks the immune system severely, the individual has progressed to the condition called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). When it comes to AIDS, the symptoms can be as severe as;
    – Memory loss
    – Abnormal weight loss
    – Diarrhoea that lasts longer than a week
    – Severe tiredness
    – Ulcer or sore in genitals, anus, and mouth
    – Paralysis
    – Fungal infections in the throat
    – Lymphadenopathy
    – Blindness (in extreme cases caused by Cytomegalovirus (CMV))

    Patients with AIDS are provided with medications for control. However, medical experts recommend that people undergo treatment to control the severity of the disease before it progresses into stage 3 or AIDS.


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What is the link between HIV, AIDS and cancer?

The human body’s immune system is the first line of defense against any form of threat that can attack or cause harm. It is an extensive network of organs, blood cells (WBC), proteins and chemicals that metaphorically fight against those entities that pose a threat to the body. This formidable defense mechanism requires proper nourishment to function optimally. When a virus, such as HIV, invades and compromises the immune system, it opens the door for other potentially fatal diseases.

While the immune system is robust, its vulnerability to compromise underscores the severity of HIV’s impact. It is essential to recognize that the real threat arises not directly from HIV but from subsequent infections that take advantage of a weakened immune system, leading to disability and even death. Cancer, characterized by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, is one of the potential outcomes of a compromised immune system.
This connection between AIDS and cancer emphasizes the critical importance of preserving and supporting the immune system, not only to combat HIV but also to safeguard against a cascade of opportunistic infections and diseases.

Most commonly reported cancers among people with HIV include;

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Who is at risk of developing HIV infection?

Presently, there is no vaccine or definitive cure for HIV. Medical experts emphasize that effective management of HIV symptoms is possible, but the absence of a complete cure underscores the paramount importance of preventative measures to curb the transmission of HIV.

Individuals at a heightened risk of acquiring HIV infection and progressing to AIDS include;

  • Those with multiple sexual partners.
  • Individuals engaging in unprotected intercourse without the use of condoms or vaginal caps (which help prevent the transmission of genital fluids)
  • Intravenous drug users who share needles
  • Babies born to HIV-infected mothers
  • Infants breastfed by HIV-positive women
  • Individuals subjected to unsafe forms of blood transfusion.

Contrary to some fears, HIV does not spread through saliva. Healthy individuals can donate blood to those with HIV safely. Furthermore, researchers have clarified that transmission through insect bites is not a viable mode of contraction. These clarifications underscore the importance of accurate information dissemination to dispel myths surrounding HIV transmission, promoting a more informed and compassionate approach to individuals living with the virus. 

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How is HIV diagnosed?  

The diagnosis of HIV involves the use of blood or saliva tests, which are readily available in clinics, hospitals, and community centers. When HIV enters the body, it introduces an antigen called p24, prompting the immune system to generate antibodies. The confirmation of an HIV-positive status is based on the detection of these HIV antigens or antibodies in blood, saliva, or urine. Positive results typically trigger additional tests for validation, such as a complete blood count (CBC), viral hepatitis screening, chest X-ray, Pap smear, CD4 count, and tuberculosis tests.
There are three main types of HIV tests:

– These tests identify both HIV markers and antibodies in the body.
– Results are typically available within 18 to 45 days after exposure.
– Rapid tests are available for quicker results but may require at least 18 days post-exposure.

– These tests specifically detect HIV antibodies in blood or saliva.
– It takes between 23 to 90 days for these tests to identify HIV.
– Blood draws generally offer earlier detection compared to saliva or finger-prick methods.

– NATs directly search for the presence of HIV in the blood.
– These tests can detect the virus 10 to 33 days after exposure, making them particularly useful in high-risk situations.
– NATs are often reserved for specific cases where early detection is crucial.

The variety of HIV tests allows healthcare professionals to choose the most appropriate method based on factors such as the time elapsed since potential exposure and the specific risk factors involved. Timely and accurate HIV diagnosis is pivotal in initiating appropriate medical interventions, counselling, and support services for individuals living with HIV.

How is HIV treated and managed?  

It’s crucial to understand that HIV has no cure; instead, the focus is on disease control through anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. Commencing treatment in the early stages allows individuals to manage the infection’s severity within 5-6 months. This control is referred to as viral suppression, and in some cases, treatment reduces the viral load to an undetectable level. An undetectable viral load means the virus is present at such low levels that standard tests cannot identify it. Importantly, individuals with an undetectable viral load are unlikely to transmit HIV through various means, including sexual contact and needle sharing.

While ARV treatment is effective in managing the progression of HIV, certain irreversible physiological or functional changes resulting from AIDS, such as blindness caused by CMV, cannot be cured. Early initiation of treatment is imperative, as delaying may allow the virus to multiply and further compromise the immune system.

It is crucial for HIV-positive individuals to adhere to the prescribed treatment regimen, following their physician’s recommendations. This is essential to prevent the virus from escalating and attacking the immune system. Additionally, the partners of HIV-positive individuals are advised to consider PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to lower the risk of acquiring HIV. PrEP is a preventive measure involving medication that can significantly reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission, especially for individuals in high-risk situations. This underscores the importance of a comprehensive approach to HIV care, encompassing early treatment, consistent medication adherence, and preventive measures for both HIV-positive individuals and their partners.

How are AIDS-related cancers treated?

The treatment approach for AIDS-related cancer is contingent on the specific cancer variant and its extent of spread throughout the body. A personalized treatment plan may incorporate a combination of the following interventions:

Targeted tumour removal can be considered in certain cases, providing a precise approach to combat cancer.

This treatment employs potent medications to eliminate or impede the growth of cancer cells.

Utilizing medications, immunotherapy activates the immune system to target and eradicate cancer cells selectively, minimizing harm to healthy tissues.

Precision is the focus in targeted therapy, as medications zero in on specific alterations within cancer cells, eradicating them while preserving the integrity of healthy cells.

This method employs high-energy X-rays or other radiation modalities to shrink or obliterate cancer cells.

Integral to a comprehensive care strategy is the management of the HIV infection itself. Antiretroviral treatment (ART) is administered to regulate the virus, reducing potential side effects from other cancer treatments and enhancing the prospects for a successful recovery. This dual approach, addressing both cancer and HIV, reflects the complexity of care required for individuals facing AIDS-related cancer, aiming to optimize treatment outcomes and overall well-being.

How to manage the side effects of HIV-related cancers?  

Managing the side effects of AIDS-related cancers involves a comprehensive approach that addresses both the cancer treatment side effects and the underlying HIV infection. Many side effects, such as pain, nausea, and fatigue, can be managed symptomatically. Medications and supportive care are provided to reduce the severity of the symptoms and improve the quality of life of the patient. Depending on the specific side effects and the patient’s response, adjustments to the cancer treatment regimen may be made. This could involve changing the dosage or type of chemotherapy drugs, immunotherapy agents, or other targeted therapies. 

Crucial side effect management therapies include;

– Vitamin C and nutrition therapy
Vitamin C plays a crucial in the body’s immunity and disease-fighting capacity. At the same time, maintaining proper nutrition is crucial for individuals undergoing cancer treatment and managing HIV. Adequate nutrition helps sustain energy levels, supports the immune system, and aids in the recovery process. Nutritional counselling and dietary interventions may be recommended to address specific needs and challenges related to cancer and HIV.

– Pain management 
Patients suffering from severe can opt for various therapies like hot and cold therapy, massage therapy, acupuncture and more (though acupuncture is not recommended for patients suffering from blood cancer or skin health issues). 

– Physiotherapy
Physiotherapy is crucial for helping the patient lead a normal life and to alleviate various side effects like pain and fatigue. Regular exercise, tailored to the individual’s capabilities, can improve overall physical function and reduce pain. Rehabilitation programs may include strength training, stretching, and aerobic exercises.

– Herbal Supplements
Some herbal supplements, like turmeric and ginger, provide relief through it’s anti-inflammatory properties. However, it’s important to consult with healthcare professionals before using supplements due to potential interactions with medications.

– Emotional health and Counseling
Establishing a strong social support system is essential for those dealing with tumours connected to AIDS. Getting in touch with friends, family, support groups, or neighbourhood organizations may be part of this. Positive treatment outcomes can be achieved through the provision of practical aid, understanding, and encouragement from social support networks. Through support groups, one can connect with people who have gone through similar things to get emotional support and coping mechanisms for dealing with pain. Individual therapy could be advantageous as well.

Close monitoring and management of antiretroviral therapy are essential. The goal is to control HIV replication while minimizing drug interactions and potential side effects. This is crucial for maintaining overall health and immune function.

In conclusion

In the face of the complex challenges posed by the intersection of AIDS and cancer, we find strength in resilience. As one inspiring AIDS survivor wisely remarks, ‘Adversity may be a formidable foe, but with knowledge, support, and unwavering determination, we can transform it into a powerful ally on the journey to recovery and hope.’

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