AIDS is caused by a viral infection. In the United States, the virus is called HIV (for human immunodeficiency virus); it is one of a group of viruses called retroviruses (so-called because they can make DNA copies of their RNA—the reverse of what typically occurs in animal cells). In 1983, French researchers discovered the virus, which they had linked to an outbreak of enlarged lymph nodes (one early sign of HIV infection) that had been reported among French male homosexuals. The French named it the lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV). In 1984, U.S. researchers isolated HIV from AIDS patients and named it human T-lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV-III). American investigators found a way to grow HIV in labo ratories in large amounts, which led to the development of laboratory tests that detect HIV infection.

HIV gradually destroys certain white blood cells called T-helper lymphocytes or CD4 + cells. The loss of these cells results in the body's inability to control microbial organisms that the normal immune system controls easily. These infections are called opportunistic because they take advantage of damage to part of the immune system. A few select cancers are also frequently diagnosed, such as Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer of blood vessels, which appears as purplish spots on the skin or mucous membranes.

The sharing of needles contaminated with HIV for injecting drugs of abuse may lead to infection with HIV—but drug abuse may also act as a cofactor with HIV, affecting the development of AIDS. A co-factor in AIDS is a non-HIV-related influence operating in conjunction with HIV to affect the cause of the disease. For example, HIV-infected individuals who continue to inject drugs and/or continue tobacco use may not survive as long as those who do not abuse those substances. The abuse of nitrite Inhalants (''poppers'') among HIV-infected homosexual men may promote the development of Kaposi's sarcoma.

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