Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), human viral disease that ravages the immune system, undermining the body’s ability to defend itself from infection and disease. Caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), AIDS leaves an infected person vulnerable to opportunistic infections. Such infections are harmless in healthy people, but in those whose immune systems have been greatly weakened, they can prove fatal. Although there is no cure for AIDS, new drugs are available that can prolong the life spans and improve the quality of life of infected people.
Infection with HIV does not necessarily mean that a person has AIDS. Some people who have HIV infection may not develop any of the clinical illnesses that define the full-blown disease of AIDS for ten years or more. Physicians prefer to use the term AIDS for cases where a person has reached the final, life-threatening stage of HIV infection.
AIDS is the final stage of a chronic infection with the human immunodeficiency virus. There are two types of this virus: HIV-1, which is the primary cause of AIDS worldwide, and HIV-2, found mostly in West Africa. On its surface, HIV carries a protein structure that recognizes and binds only with a specific structure found on the outer surface of certain cells. HIV attacks any cell that has this binding structure. However, white blood cells of the immune system known as T cells, which orchestrate a wide variety of disease-fighting mechanisms, are especially vulnerable to HIV attack. Particularly vulnerable are certain T cells known as CD4 cells. When HIV infects a CD4 cell, it commandeers the genetic tools within the cell to manufacture new HIV virus. The newly formed HIV virus then leaves the cell, destroying the CD4 cell in the process. No existing medical treatment can completely eradicate HIV from the body once it has integrated into human cells.
The loss of CD4 cells endangers health because these immune cells help other types of...