Since the 1st of December 1988, World AIDS Day has been observed around the globe to raise awareness about the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
In “The Global AIDS Monitoring Report 2022” published by the Ministry of Health Malaysia, it was estimated that almost 82,000 people were living with HIV in Malaysia at the end of 2021, of which more than 67,000 people were notified through the national surveillance system.
Contrary to popular belief, HIV infection does not always lead to the development of AIDS. HIV infection first appears as a common flu, before going into a latent stage of inactivity.
If undetected and untreated, the infection slowly weakens the immune system by targeting white blood cells until it eventually leads to the onset of AIDS, which is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.
The progression from HIV infection to onset of AIDS can take several years. If detected early, treatment with antiretroviral therapy (ART) can delay the onset of AIDS and in some cases, even prevent AIDS entirely.
The development of AIDS leads to a weakened immune system in individuals, which can increase the risk of contracting opportunistic infections.
Due to this increased risk, maintaining good oral health among people living with HIV (PLHIV) and AIDS should be given the utmost importance.
It is vital to maintain good oral health as oral diseases can often contribute to the development or increase the severity of systemic diseases (diseases affecting the rest of the body).
Research has shown that oral health and systemic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes share many physiological and molecular commonalities.
Some of the most common oral conditions associated with HIV/AIDS are dry mouth, gum diseases, and fungal infection. For PLHIV whose immune systems are severely weakened, it is therefore even more critical to maintain good oral health to minimise the risk of developing severe systemic diseases.
PLHIV can protect their oral health despite living with a weakened immune system by practising good oral hygiene. Brushing teeth at least twice a day, flossing, and avoiding late night snacks can help maintain oral health.
Most importantly though, PLHIV should also visit dental clinics regularly to ensure their oral health is well maintained. By protecting their oral health, PLHIV will also be protecting their general health simultaneously.
In conjunction with World AIDS day, let’s remember that PLHIV deserves to be treated with respect just like everybody else. HIV does not transmit through proximity, nor does it transmit when sharing utensils or clothing. As such, PLHIV should not be ostracised by the rest of the population.
If you are a PLHIV or caring for one and would like to book a dental check-up, the Special Care Dentistry Clinic in the Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya is well equipped to handle patients with special needs. Patients will also be attended to by well-trained and experienced dental practitioners.
Together, let us reinforce the message of respect, inclusivity, and proactive health management for all individuals, irrespective of their health status.
Let World AIDS Day today serve as the starting point for collective action, empowering individuals to prioritize their oral health, ensuring a healthier future for everyone.