Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system overtime and makes it defenseless against many infections (which a healthy immune system can fight off) and some types of cancer. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the most advanced stage of HIV which can take many years to emerge if not treated. AIDS is characterized by the emergence of certain cancers and infections, mostly opportunistic infections.
Globally, 38 million people were estimated to be living with HIV at the end of 2019 of which 25.7 million were found living in the WHO African Region. Although HIV is a major public health problem, increasing access to effective HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care, has made HIV infection a manageable chronic health condition, enabling people with HIV to live long and healthy lives. Presently, there is no cure for HIV. However, the availability of HIV prevention measures and effective antiretroviral treatment (ART) can suppress the virus and prevent further transmission to other people. Despite the achievements, access (challenges) to HIV testing remains crucial to key populations and remains a threat to the efforts made so far.
In Ghana, more than 342,307 people were found to be living with HIV in 2019 of which 64% were females. Regional variations in HIV prevalence showed that the the Eastern and Greater Accra Regions have the highest prevalence of HIV in the country with the three Northern Regions recording the lowest prevalence. Key populations (at-risk groups) such as female sex workers and their clients, and men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV in Ghana. The at-risk groups account for 28% of all new infections. According to the Ghana AIDS Commission, just 58% of the people living with HIV know their HIV status. This implies that significant number of people living with HIV (PLHIV) are not testing enough to know their HIV status and this situation puts others (family and friends) at risk of infection.
Stigmatization coupled with barriers to effective utilization of healthcare services for PLHIV in Ghana are further challenges to HIV control programmes. For example, at-risk groups and the vulnerable and the socio-economically challenged PLHIV in Ghana who do not know their HIV status are less likely to access testing services and will not therefore receive ART treatment and care due to these challenges. The availability of HIV rapid test and self-test can tremendously facilitate diagnosis and linkage with ART treatment and care.
Transmission of HIV
HIV can be transmitted through:
- Body fluids (blood, breast milk, semen, and vaginal secretions) from an infected person
- An infected mother to her child during pregnancy and delivery
Note that you cannot become infected with HIV through contact, such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands or sharing personal objects, food, and water. Note also, that people who have HIV and who are taking ART do not transmit HIV to their sexual partners because they are virally suppressed due to the ART treatment and care they receive. That is the reason why early diagnosis and treatment is crucial not only to reduce the burden of infection but also prevent HIV infection.
Signs and symptoms of HIV
Symptoms of HIV varies depending on the stage of infection. HIV infected persons are more infectious during the first few months after the onset of infection. At this stage many are unaware of their status until later stages of the infection. Symptoms in the first few weeks include:
- Influenza-like illness
- Rash or
- Sore throat
As the infection progresses, the immune system weakens, and the following signs and symptoms can develop
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Cough, and without treatment can lead to
- Severe tuberculosis infection
- Cryptococcal meningitis
- Severe bacterial infection
- Cancers such as lymphomas and Kaposi’s sarcoma
How can I contract HIV?
The following behaviours and conditions can put you at risk of getting infected with HIV:
- having unprotected anal or vaginal sex;
- having another sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and bacterial vaginosis;
- sharing contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs;
- receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions and tissue transplantation, and medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing; and
- experiencing accidental needle stick injuries, including among health workers
Knowing your HIV status
There is no other way of knowing your HIV status than getting tested. Knowing your HIV status helps you make informed choices to stay healthy. All adults should therefore be motivated to get tested for HIV and to know their status. If you feel insecure or suspect that you may be infected with HIV, do no wait! Order an HIV test today or go to the nearest clinic and request for an HIV test. If you have indulged in something that you think may have been exposed or at high risk of infection, follow the following steps to get tested:
- Take an HIV test 2-3 weeks after the risk of infection
- The next time, test approximately 6-8 weeks after the infection
- Lastly, test approximately 3 months after you have been exposed to the infection.
Understanding your HIV test results
- A negative test result without a possible exposure during the previous three months means that you can be confident you do not have HIV.
- If your test result is positive, it is not conclusive that you have HIV. Therefore, you must go to a health care provider for confirmation of the results/follow-up.