Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV is most commonly spread by unprotected sexual intercourse; through sharing injecting equipment or from mother-to-child during the birth process and through breastfeeding. Without treatment, HIV damages the immune system, making the body less able to protect itself from illness. Eventually this results in AIDS, where illnesses become so serious they are life threatening. Although there is no vaccine or cure, effective treatment can delay serious illness and improve quality of life.
HIV is found in blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. You can contract HIV by getting blood or body fluids from an infected person into your bloodstream. This can happen through:
Unprotected sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal) with an infected person,
Transfusions of unscreened and untested blood,
Contaminated needles (most frequently for injecting drug use), and
From an infected mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
Symptoms of AIDS
Many people with HIV look and feel healthy, but more than half will develop a range of symptoms as the body’s immune system reacts to the virus. These may last for a few days to a few weeks and may include flu-like symptoms, mouth ulcers, swollen glands, recurrent fever, night sweets and chills, diarrhea or persistent or dry cough.
Note: These conditions can also be caused by conditions other than HIV. Only an antibody test can confirm that HIV is the cause.
After infection, many people can remain well with no symptoms for many years. However, even if someone infected with HIV has no symptoms, they can still spread the disease. Infection with HIV does not mean a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made only when the immune system breaks down, leading to infections and cancers.
People with HIV develop antibodies (germ fighting proteins) to the virus. It can take up to three months after infection with HIV before these antibodies can be detected. Labs look for these antibodies using saliva, urine or a small blood sample to determine if a person has been infected with HIV, not for HIV itself. If the first screening test (ELIZA) is positive, a second test is done to confirm the result. When both tests prove positive, it means that the antibody to HIV has been found.
Early testing and diagnosis for HIV can be very helpful because, when people know their HIV status, they can act to take care of themselves and to avoid passing on the virus to others. If the result is positive, they can get the care and support they need for living with HIV/AIDS.
It is important that people undertake pre- and post-test voluntary counseling to help them cope with the news, to seek the treatment they need and to plan for the future.
Treatments for HIV/AIDS include medicines to:
Reduce the amount of virus in the body (antiretroviral)
Prevent the serious illnesses of AIDS (prophylactic and preventative drugs)
Treat infections and diseases that occur as part of the AIDS syndrome.
Medicines need to be taken regularly and frequently as missed doses can give the virus a chance to grow. Taking drug treatments for HIV/AIDS can be very complicated and have a substantial impact on lifestyle and relationships. Support from relatives, friends, caregivers, counselors, other persons living with HIV/AIDS and health care professionals is essential.
Protect yourself against infection
Abstain or use a latex condom
If you are at risk of getting HIV, consider having an HIV test
If you are getting body piercing or tattoos, ensure the provider’s equipment is sterilized according to Ministry of Health guidelines
If you are at risk of HIV do not donate blood, organs or sperm
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Can I contract HIV through normal social contact or activities such as shaking hands, using the same toilet seat, sharing cutlery or exposure to sneezes and coughs?
Answer: No. HIV is not an air-borne, water-borne or food-borne virus; therefore ordinary social contact such as those described above does not result in the virus being passed from one person to another.
Question: How long can HIV survive outside of the human body?
Answer: HIV is a very fragile virus and cannot survive outside of the body for any substantial length of time. Many common substances such as hot liquid, soap, bleach, alcohol and the gastric juices in the stomach can destroy the virus.