HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is much like other viruses that affect the body, with one key difference. Normally, the immune system can fight off an infection over time; however, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. Once you have HIV, you have it for life.

HIV targets specific cells of your immune system, called CD4 cells or T cells. T cells are vital to the human body because they fight off infections and disease. HIV invades your T cells and makes copies of the virus, which leads to the destruction of healthy cells. As time progresses, your body continues to lose T cells until you are no longer able to fight infections and disease. When this happens, HIV becomes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

AIDS, the final stage of HIV, occurs when the immune system is severely damaged. The infected person becomes more vulnerable to infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis, or infection-related cancers that take advantage of a compromised immune system. Developing one or more of these infections, cancers, or a very low T cell count leads to a diagnosis of AIDS. Medical treatment is necessary for severe health-related conditions to prevent death.

Who Gets HIV?

Approximately 1.1 million people in the United States and 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV. In the United States, there are 50,000 new infections each year, and 16% of those infected are unaware that they have the virus. Among different races and ethnicities, African Americans have the highest rate of HIV infection.

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