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HIV & AIDS: The Basics
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus infects and gradually destroys the cells in the body that usually fight infections, leaving the body vulnerable to diseases it would normally be able to fight.
Without treatment the immune system becomes weaker and weaker, and a person with HIV will begin to develop infections. As the immune system becomes too weak to fight infections, a person with HIV will begin to develop particularly serious infections. At this point the person is said to have developed AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV can only be passed on through infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk.
HIV is mainly transmitted through vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom or by sharing a needle or syringe with someone who is living with HIV.
Other ways that HIV can be transmitted are:
- From a HIV positive mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
- From a needlestick injury in a healthcare setting.
- From a blood transfusion or blood products (blood is usually screened to prevent this but in some countries this may not happen so you need to check the protocol in your country of residence).
- By giving oral sex (although this is rare and will usually only occur if a person has cuts or sores in their mouth).
It is IMPOSSIBLE to transmit HIV through saliva and HIV cannot be passed on through casual contact such as kissing, or sharing glasses or cutlery. HIV is a fragile virus that cannot survive outside the body.
Who’s at risk of HIV?
Anyone who is sexually active or shares needles and injecting equipment could be at risk of HIV.
Many people living with HIV are undiagnosed so it’s important that you don’t make assumptions about whether you or your partner has HIV.
Check out our HIV & AIDS video for kids, "Sweet Precious"
HIV & AIDS: Symptoms and Treatment
Symptoms of early HIV infection
Not everybody experiences symptoms when they are initially infected with HIV, but many people who acquire HIV do experience some early symptoms in the first few weeks after infection.
These may feel like flu and the most common combination of symptoms are a fever, sore throat and perhaps also a rash. These symptoms get better on their own and may be the only symptoms a person with HIV experiences before becoming very ill with a damaged immune system several years later.
Although there is no cure for HIV, extremely effective treatment called antiretroviral therapy (ART) is available which can keep the virus under control and allow someone with HIV to lead an active, healthy life. Treatment is most effective if started early and it’s important HIV positive people take their drugs exactly as prescribed in order to stay well.
Someone with HIV who is diagnosed early and responds well to treatment can have a near normal life expectancy.
HIV & AIDS: HIV Testing
What should I do if I think I may have HIV?
If you’re worried you might have contracted HIV, it’s important to get tested.
If you think you’ve put yourself at risk of HIV, visit a clinic as soon as possible to get advice on testing.
Most clinics will test for HIV antibodies which are only present in sufficient numbers up to 12 weeks after infection. Therefore most rapid HIV tests cannot tell you if you are HIV positive within the first 12 weeks. There are other more expensive tests that can test for the virus itself from 4 weeks after infection, but these are not so easily available.
Routine HIV testing
Because of the benefits of early HIV treatment and the risk of passing on HIV if you’re undiagnosed and untreated, it’s important that you’re aware of your HIV status. If you’re sexually active it’s a good idea to have a regular HIV test as part of maintaining good sexual health.