When a person has HIV, this diagnosis does not mean that he receives a death sentence or acquires AIDS. However, many people nowadays still confuse these two terms into a single condition, and misuse the word “AIDS” even though HIV is what they really mean.
HIV and AIDS are different. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell or a CD4 cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells.
As HIV destroys more CD4 cells, it gradually breaks down a person’s immune system and the body fails to fight off infections and disease over time. Healthy people usually have 500 to 1,600 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. When a person’s CD4 cell count drops below 200 per cubic millimeter of blood, his HIV officially progresses to AIDS.
AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is not a virus but a series of symptoms caused by the HIV virus. AIDS is usually the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and will lead to death if left untreated.
However, people do not die from AIDS itself. Instead, opportunistic infections, like pneumonia or various
cancers, take advantage of a weakened immune system and slowly kill people. Without treatment, people with AIDS usually survive for three years. Once they’re infected with an opportunistic infection, life expectancy even drops down, depending on the progression of the illness and how damaged the immune system has become.
Not every person infected by HIV will develop AIDS and, thanks to science advances, many people with HIV today can live long and healthy lives. Indeed, by taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) as prescribed, people with HIV can achieve life-long viral suppression and prevent HIV infection from progressing to AIDS. With timely prescription of ART and good adherence, even people with AIDS can have a remarkable recovery.
Neither HIV nor AIDS is a death sentence nowadays.
Nevertheless, due to an absence of effective ART, an AIDS diagnosis was associated with a very high short-term mortality in the early days of the HIV epidemic. Since then, the term “AIDS” has became implanted in the public’s mind with the word “death” and been incorrectly used in mainstream media as well.
In 1987, at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the virus that destroyed a considerable amount of data at the student computer center was given the name PC AIDS.
Language is powerful. The incorrect use of AIDS overestimates the terminal and lethal consequences of the disease and misleads public attention to people dying from AIDS rather than people living with HIV. Today, the HIV community no longer utters the term AIDS and instead, advocates ditching it for the more appropriate term—stage 3 HIV.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) changed the terminology used in HIV and AIDS surveillance reporting—replacing “AIDS” with “HIV Stage 3.” Meanwhile, AID.gov, an online blog providing information about HIV/AIDS awareness and HIV-related policies and research since its launch in 2006, announced that it would change its name to HIV.gov by the spring of 2017.
It is time to let go of the term “AIDS” and remove stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. To achieve this, the media and medical professionals as well as people living with HIV all need to work together and disseminate correct information about HIV. Only when we stop the cycle of language misuse from continuing can we hopefully end the epidemic.