The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is a disease that affects not only homosexual men and intravenous (IV) drug users but is becoming ramped among heterosexual women. HIV infection has become the third leading cause of death in women between the ages of 25-44.

How does the infection occur?

The virus enters the bloodstream through body fluids, by blood or semen. Once the virus enters the bloodstream it kills cells of the immune system. These are white blood cells called CD4 cells. Once these cells are destroyed the body is unable to fight disease. White blood cells decrease in patients with advanced HIV infections.

How is the infection spread?

HIV infection is spread through contact with the body fluids of an infected person. This can happen through sex or by sharing needles used to inject drugs. An infected woman who is pregnant can pass the virus on to her baby in utero. Women who breastfeed can pass the infection to their babies through breast milk.

Women can also become infected through blood transfusions. All donor blood in the United States is now screened for the HIV disease. Women may also contact HIV if they work in the health care field through needle sticks or other blood related health care accidents.

Effects of HIV

A person infected with HIV does not get sick right away. The virus breaks down the immune system over time. Flu like symptoms appear, weight loss, fatigue and fever usually occurs.

There is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection, and there is no cure for AIDS. There are some medications that fight HIV related infection and help protect the immune system.

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