Unprotected sex is one of the more risky behaviours that anyone can have. It means having sex without using a new condom every time. It’s as dangerous as riding a motorcycle blindfold, without a helmet, against oncoming traffic. That’s not something a rational person would do. Yet, in Africa, men and women continue to risk contracting HIV/AIDS by having sex without protection. Having multiple sexual partners increases the risk even more.
Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). HIV attacks and destroys the infection-fighting cells of the immune system. Loss of these cells makes it difficult for the body to fight infections and certain cancers. Without treatment, HIV gradually destroys the immune system and advances to AIDS. It is a sexually transmitted infection.
69% of the 36 million people worldwide with HIV/AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than half of them are women. Youth and young adults in Africa are particularly vulnerable to HIV, with young women at higher risk than young men. Societal and cultural pressures around early marriage and the powerlessness of the girl child place girls as young as 12 years at grave risk of sexually transmitted diseases and obstetrical health complications. 91% of HIV infected children worldwide are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Africa, the 3 main routes of transmission are:
- Unprotected heterosexual sex (between a man and woman)
- Exposure to infected body fluids through blood transfusions
- Mother to child transmission (also known as vertical transmission) during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding
Only half of the people who have HIV infection know that they do. Many people who have HIV don’t know it because they don’t show any symptoms for years. They transmit the infection to their sexual partners. Even if you have no symptoms, HIV can still be passed on to someone else.
The late symptoms of HIV infection are referred to as AIDS and generally don’t appear for many years. As the infection progresses, it interferes more and more with the immune system, making the person much more susceptible to common infections and cancers that do not usually affect people with healthy immune systems.
How can we prevent HIV/AIDS?
Did you know that the simple act of using a condom provides 99% protection against HIV infection, not to mention protection against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? The other 1% is caused by human error. For example, if one doesn’t use a condom all the time or if the condom breaks (which happens if used incorrectly).
HIV testing for all is vital. Individuals with HIV who are aware of their status learn about the options for treatment, care and support and are also less likely to transmit HIV to others.
There is no known cure for HIV/AIDS regardless of what snake oil salesmen and charlatans claim. The only effective treatment is with Anti-Retroviral drugs or ART –Anti-retroviral Therapy. With long term use the viral load is reduced in the system to nearly undetectable levels and it prevents mother to child transmission in pregnancy.
In order to halt the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the African continent, prevention efforts must focus on the following areas:
- Prevent sexual transmission –
- Use of condoms provides 99% protection against HIV infection
- Limit the number of sexual partners
- Cultural changes are needed including a re-emphasis on fidelity within marriage and sexual abstinence outside of it
- Prevent Mother to Child transmission – every HIV positive pregnant woman should be treated with antiretroviral therapy.
- Provide safe blood supply for transfusions
- Avoid intravenous drug abuse and the re-use of needles in medical facilities
- HIV/AIDS health education