The 1st of December every year marks World AIDS Day. While HIV infection is not the forefront of the media these days, it is likely that you personally know or know somebody else who has been affected by HIV.
“I remember a beautiful teacher of mine who lost his life to a HIV related illness almost 10 years ago, and remember the patients I have had the pleasure of knowing living with the disease.”
Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV is a blood borne virus that targets the immune system. It is transmitted person to person via blood (such as using contaminated needles or a blood transfusion), sexual intercourse and during pregnancy from mother to baby. Some infected persons do not know they are infected, and may transmit the disease unknowingly. Blood screening, needle exchange programs, condom use and education have reduced the incidence of transmission of the virus. However; HIV transmission is on the rise.
Improvements in antiretroviral treatments and early detection have been linked to improved quality of life and increased life expectancy of HIV patients. Furthermore, due to the improvements in treatment, the disease may be seen as less serious, and people are becoming lax with safety measures to prevent the disease. Scientists are currently working towards a vaccine and cure in the future.
The Stigma of HIV
HIV was once considered a homosexual disease, due to its presence in the gay community, when the disease was first recognised in the 1980’s.
However, HIV can be caught by anyone and transmitted to anyone who is not practicing adequate safety measures. In addition, the public’s view of HIV can often seriously impact the mental wellbeing of the person living with the disease, and cause the affected individual to recluse from society.
In an attempt to abolish the social out casting of HIV sufferers Australia has now declared it a criminal offence to unfairly discriminate against a person because they have HIV.
HIV and the Skin
As a consequence of the illness many people living with HIV can experience changes to their skin. As HIV infects immune cells, compromising immune function, skin infections and skin conditions can last longer, take longer to heal and be more serious than in people without the disease.
The conditions listed below cover a few everyday skin issues and serious skin diseases that can affect persons with HIV:
Thrush (Candida albicans)
Thrush (yeast infection) commonly affects women, and persons who are on antibiotic therapy. It is an overgrowth of naturally present fungus called Candida albicans, in the vagina, skin and the throat. For persons with HIV, yeast infections can be common, and cause great discomfort.
Herpes Zoster and Simplex
‘Herpes’ is a viral skin infection that has several strains. Herpes zoster is seen in adults as shingles, and herpes simplex is what we commonly refer to as a ‘cold sore’. Shingles can be extremely painful, flaring up on and causing lesions on nerve branches across the body. Shingles in persons with HIV can persist for over 3 weeks, and may be the first sign of a compromised immune system in undiagnosed persons.
Herpes simplex or cold sores are a common occurrence for a number of non HIV sufferer’s, in fact; most people have been exposed to the virus, without the presence of physical cold sores. However, in HIV sufferers, cold sores can be widespread, more painful and take longer to heal.
Dry Skin and Other Skin Irritations
In addition, medication that is used to treat HIV can cause changes to the skin. This often results in dry skin, psoriasis, dandruff, dermatitis and skin rashes. When the skin barrier has been disrupted due to a skin condition, it is at greater risk of infection. Persons with HIV should take extra care of their skin, protecting it from dryness with a hydrating skin hygiene routine and sun protection.
In Australia, where the risk and prevalence of skin cancer high, the risk is further increased in persons living with HIV.
Sarcoma (a blood vessel tumour that is dark red in colour) is a rare type of cancer in the general population, but it is the particular ‘Kaposi’s sarcoma’ that is seen in HIV patients. Squamous cell carcinomas, basal cell carcinomas and malignant melanomas are also seen, and all types of cancers should be indentified and managed by a dermatologist or other health professional.