AIDS is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which progressively destroys the body's immune system. Since 1981, more than 900,000 cases have been reported in the United States. It leaves people susceptible to opportunistic infections -- diseases that would ordinarily not make a person sick. AIDS is growing most rapidly among minority populations, especially African-American women and children.

An Introduction to AIDS

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was first reported in the United States in 1981 and has since become a major worldwide epidemic. It is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). By killing or damaging cells of the body's immune system, HIV progressively destroys the body's ability to fight infections and certain cancers. People diagnosed with AIDS may get life-threatening diseases, called opportunistic infections, which are caused by microbes, such as viruses or bacteria, that usually do not make healthy people sick.

How Prevalent Is It?

More than 900,000 cases have been reported in the United States since 1981. As many as 950,000 Americans may be infected with HIV, one-quarter of whom are unaware of their infection.

AIDS and Minorities

The epidemic is growing most rapidly among minority populations, and is a leading killer of African-American males ages 25 to 44. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), AIDS affects nearly seven times more African Americans and three times more Hispanics than whites. In recent years, an increasing number of African-American women and children are being affected by HIV/AIDS. In 2003, two-thirds of U.S. cases in both women and children were among African Americans.

HIV Symptoms Turning to AIDS Symptoms

The term AIDS (autoimmune deficiency syndrome) applies to the most advanced stages of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection. The definition of AIDS includes all HIV-infected people who have fewer than 200 CD4+ T cells per cubic millimeter of blood. (Healthy adults usually have CD4+ T cell counts of 1,000 or more.)

Signs and Symptoms of AIDS Caused by Opportunistic Infections

The definition of AIDS also includes 26 clinical conditions that affect people with advanced HIV disease. Most of these conditions are opportunistic infections that generally do not affect healthy people. In people with AIDS, these infections are often severe, and sometimes fatal, because the immune system is so ravaged by HIV that the body cannot fight off certain bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other microbes. Common AIDS symptoms that stem from these opportunistic infections include:
  • Coughing and shortness of breath
  • Seizures and lack of coordination
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Mental symptoms, such as confusion and forgetfulness
  • Severe and persistent diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Vision loss
  • Nausea, abdominal (stomach) cramps, and vomiting
  • Weight loss and extreme fatigue
  • Severe headaches
  • Coma.
Children with AIDS may get the same opportunistic infections as adults with the disease. In addition, they have severe forms of the typically common childhood bacterial infections, such as conjunctivitis (pink eye), ear infections, and tonsillitis.

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