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World AIDS Day on 1 December: early diagnosis increases chances of successful treatment

(Vienna, 27th November 2013) Somewhat more than 30 million people worldwide suffer from AIDS or are carriers of the HIV virus. About 400 new cases are diagnosed annually in Austria. AIDS is no respecter of age – one can be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at any age. "The earlier the illness is detected, the better the chances of the treatment being successful and the better the quality of life," emphasises Katharina Grabmeier-Pfistershammer of the University Department of Dermatology at the MedUni Vienna and expert at the AIDS outpatient clinic, on the occasion of the coming World AIDS Day on 1 December, which has been organised by UNAIDS since 1996.

These days AIDS is eminently treatable, those affected can practically lead a completely normal life, remain in regular employment and live to an advanced age with the assistance of effective combination therapies which can also be tailored fully to the individual. In addition to early detection, one of the most crucial factors, according to the MedUni Vienna expert, is sticking with the treatment: "It is crucial to follow the course of treatment without any gaps as far as possible. Even dropping the treatment on a short-term basis can endanger the treatment as it enables the virus to build up resistance."

Homosexuals continue to form the greatest risk group in Austria. Unprotected heterosexual intercourse, swapping needles or puncture wounds from needles are all ways the virus can be transmitted.

The earlier the risk of infection is identified the better: anyone reporting to an AIDS outpatient clinic within 48 hours after a risky exposure (unprotected sex, puncture wounds and cuts amongst risk groups), can get a prescription for a so-called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) after the probability of an infection has been evaluated. This means taking antiretroviral drugs prophylactically over the course of four weeks, thus considerably reducing the risk of the infection establishing itself.
A PEP prevents the HIV viruses, which penetrate human cells, from reproducing. Says Grabmeier-Pfistershammer: "The HIV viruses function like herpes viruses. Once you have them, you have them forever – they are however much more dangerous, reproducing themselves in the human body and weakening the immune system, which can, as a consequence, lead to the development of tumours, opportunistic infections but also cardiovascular disease.

The problem is the early detection itself as the HIV infection mostly starts as an unspecific viral infection, similar to influenza, and is also treated as such. Typical symptoms for an HIV primary infection are fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat and a rash.  With symptoms such as these and a corresponding case history of risk, HIV should always be borne in mind. The primary infection is usually also followed by a symptom-free phase lasting for years before diseases associated with HIV/AIDS appear.

A propos HIV test: the experts at the MedUni Vienna, the AIDS inpatient department is led by Armin Rieger, in general recommend the offering of an HIV test as part of the routine check-up in Austria.