How AIDS Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & Oisin Curran

The Unusual Virus

HIV virus particle
HIV can be transmitted through a variety of body fluids from infected individuals. Ian Cuming/Getty Images

AIDS has infected and killed so many people because of the way it works. Let's look at some of the features that make this disease so unusual.

HIV can be transmitted through a variety of body fluids from infected individuals, such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. But individuals cannot become infected through ordinary contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing food or water. When compared with the many viruses that spread through the air, it would seem that the intimacy involved in the transmission of AIDS would be a limiting factor.


However, a person can be contagious for a decade or more before any visible signs of disease become apparent. And in that decade, an HIV carrier can potentially infect dozens of people, each of whom can infect dozens more, and so on.

HIV invades the cells of our immune system and reprograms them to become HIV-producing factories. Without treatment, the number of immune cells in the body dwindles and AIDS can develop. Once AIDS manifests, a person is susceptible to many different infections because HIV has weakened the immune system to the point where it can no longer fight back effectively.

In fact, HIV not only invades and weakens the immune system — the very system that would normally protect the body from a virus — it also destroys it. HIV has also shown the ability to mutate, which makes treating the virus very difficult. As the virus destroys and impairs the function of immune cells, infected individuals gradually become immunodeficient.