The World of Global Health, Explained

By Johanna Harvey | August 6, 2013

The HIV virus.

HIV, ARV, PMTCT, EID, Option B+… WHO? Global health terminology can often seem more like alphabet soup than meaningful abbreviations and phrases. For many people, it can be easy to become overwhelmed and confused by all of the global health jargon. Here at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, also known as EGPAF (another acronym!), we are trying to make life a little easier for our readers. Below are some of the most common and confusing global health acronyms and phrases, with simple and easy-to-remember definitions.

In our first installment, we will focus on disease terminology—what exactly does PMTCT stand for? Read below to find out!

Disease Terminology

AIDS—Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome: A disease of the immune system due to infection with HIV. HIV destroys the CD4 T lymphocytes (CD4 cells) of the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to life-threatening infections and cancers. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

Adherence– Taking medications exactly as prescribed or following a specific plan of medical care, such as returning for regularly planned follow-up clinic visits. Poor adherence to an HIV treatment regimen increases the risk for developing drug-resistant HIV and virologic failure.

ARV—Antiretroviral drug:  A drug used to prevent a retrovirus, such as HIV, from replicating. The term primarily refers to drugs used in the treatment or prevention of HIV.

ART– Antiretroviral Therapy:  The recommended treatment regimen for HIV infection. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) generally involves using a combination of three or more antiretroviral drugs (ARV) from at least two different HIV drug classes to prevent HIV from replicating, thereby reducing or resolving the bodily harm caused by HIV infection.

Baseline– An initial measurement used as the basis for future comparison. For people infected with HIV in wealthy countries, baseline testing includes CD4 count, viral load (HIV RNA), and resistance testing. Baseline test results are used to guide HIV treatment choices and monitor effectiveness of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

CD4 Count –A laboratory test that measures the number of CD4+ T lymphocytes (CD4+ cells) in a sample of blood. HIV specifically infects and causes destruction of these immunologic cells, leading to damage of the immune system. In people with HIV, the CD4 count is the most important laboratory indicator of immune function and the strongest predictor of HIV disease progression. The CD4 count is one of the factors used to determine when to start antiretroviral therapy (ART). The CD4 count is also used to monitor response to ART.

Discordant Couple – Sexual partners in which only one partner is infected with a sexually transmitted infection, such as HIV, and the other partner is not infected.

HIV—Human Immunodeficiency Virus:  The virus that causes AIDS, which is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. HIV is a retrovirus that occurs as two major types: HIV-1 and HIV-2. Both types are transmitted through direct contact with HIV-infected body fluids, such as blood, semen, and genital secretions, or from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding (through breast milk).

KS – Kaposi sarcoma:  A rare type of cancer characterized by the abnormal growth of cells that line lymph and blood vessels. Kaposi sarcoma (KS) causes red or purple patches of tissue (lesions) to grow under the skin and in the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat. Lesions may also develop in the digestive tract, liver, or lungs. KS generally occurs in people with weakened immune systems. In people with HIV, KS is an AIDS-defining condition.

MTCT—Mother-to-child transmission:  When an HIV-infected mother passes HIV to her infant during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding (through breast milk). Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs are given to HIV-infected women during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding and to their infants after birth to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV.

PMTCT—Prevention of mother-to-child transmission:  Strategies used to prevent the spread (transmission) of HIV from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, during labor and delivery, or by breastfeeding (through breast milk). Strategies include antiretroviral (ARV) prophylaxis for the mother during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding; ARV prophylaxis for the newborn infant; preventing new HIV infections in women of child-bearing age; avoiding unintended pregnancies through family planning; scheduled cesarean delivery; and avoidance of breastfeeding if other safe and feasible nutritional alternatives are available.

Prophylaxis – Prevention or protection against disease. Prophylaxis is part of the PMTCT process to prevent mothers from passing HIV along to their children in-utero.

T-Cell—Also known as a T-lymphocyte.  T-cells are essential for a healthy immune system. HIV infects and destroys a specific type of T cells, called CD4 cells, gradually destroying the immune system.
Treatment Regimen –A structured treatment plan designed to improve and maintain health. Recommended HIV treatment regimens generally include a combination of three or more antiretroviral (ARV) drugs from at least two different drug classes.

Vertical transmission – Vertical transmission of HIV refers to HIV transmission from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, labor, or breastfeeding. By providing PMTCT services to pregnant women, we can significantly reduce the chances of vertical transmission.


Johanna Harvey is Senior Communications Officer for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.