The Science of HIV

You probably know that HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus,” and that it affects the immune systems of infected individuals. You probably also know that the disease is incurable but can be managed through medication. But how does HIV actually work to affect the immune system? Understanding the science behind the disease can help you better understand its transmission and treatment – so here’s a quick guide to understanding the science of HIV.

First, the basics: HIV is a virus, meaning that it is not affected by antibiotics. Viruses are only able to replicate by taking over the cells of the host, injecting their own genetic material into those cells and in turn destroying the host cells. This lets it copy itself, and as the virus replicates, it causes more and more damage by targeting more and more host cells.

In the case of HIV, the cells targeted by the virus are T helper lymphocytes, also called T-cells. Your T-cells play an important role in immune response. Basically, they work a bit like generals in the battlefield of your immune system: activating some cells to attack infection, and stimulating other cells to secrete antibodies.

These T-cells are extremely important to your immune system. Without them, infections cannot be attacked and destroyed. And although your body is constantly producing more T-cells, they can become overpowered by viruses. This is what’s being referred to when people talk about “viral load” – the amount of living virus cells in the body compared to healthy T-cells. If too many cells are destroyed, the body can become extremely prone to infections.

Although we cannot yet fully eradicate the HIV virus from the body, we do have medications available that can slow their reproduction, allowing your body to produce more T-cells and maintain fairly healthy immunity while also making you less likely to transmit the virus to others. You can learn more about these medications by contacting the doctors at UNM Truman Health Services!