HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that damages the immune system leading to serious infections.
HIV is spread by anal or vaginal sex without a condom, by sharing needles, and from mother to baby (in some cases during childbirth or breastfeeding). In rare cases HIV is spread through oral sex and needle injuries.
The early signs of HIV can include flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, or mouth ulcers and last for around one to two months – some people have no symptoms.
HIV attacks the immune system by infecting and killing the body’s white blood cells (also called CD4 lymphocytes or ‘T cells’) that help fend off infections in the body. The amount of CD4 cells in the body is known as a ‘count’. In a healthy person, this count can be anywhere between 600 and 1,200. In people with HIV, their count can be very low at which point, the body can no longer defend itself effectively and can become ill from infections that a healthy immune system would easily combat.
Most people who’ve been exposed to HIV will test HIV positive within six weeks of exposure, but a small percentage of people take up to three months. A simple blood test is taken to detect HIV antibodies. A repeat test three months after exposure may be required.
Rapid testing for HIV is now available. There are two different types of HIV rapid tests. One collects oral fluids, the other involves a finger prick. Both detect HIV antibodies which are present if you have HIV.
HIV is currently not curable however treatment has come a long way from the days where contracting it would end with a fatal diagnosis. ART or anti-retroviral therapy is a customised combination of different classes of medications that are prescribed based on such factors as the patient’s viral load (how much virus is in the blood), the particular strain of the virus, the CD4+ cell count, and other considerations (e.g. disease symptoms). ART cannot rid the body of HIV. ART must be taken every day for life to reduce a viral load to undetectable levels. An undetectable viral load (UVL) delays and prevents transmission as well as the onset of symptoms and in-turn, prolongs survival.
PrEP & PEP
PrEP, which stands for ‘pre exposure prophylaxis’ are antiretroviral drugs taken by HIV negative people and when taken on an ongoing basis, form a protection from contracting HIV. PrEP is only available through a doctor and is generally for those at high risk of contracting HIV.
Post exposure prophylaxis or PEP is taken after a potential exposure to HIV to prevent the infection taking hold. PEP is only effective if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. PEP is only accessible through sexual health clinics, doctors and hospital emergency departments, it’s not available over the counter in pharmacies.
If you have HIV it is your responsibility to let your sexual partners know so that they can be tested and treated if needed. Your medical professional will provide you with specific advice. For advice on how to make it easier to tell them visit the let them know website.
In most cases you’re not obliged to notify teachers or your boss if you’ve been diagnosed with an STI, but there are some rare exceptions for certain professionals who have been diagnosed with a blood-borne virus like HIV or hepatitis B. Ask your doctor for advice.
If you have HIV you are not allowed to donate blood, organs or other tissues.
PrEP provides protection from contracting HIV however using a condom (with lubricant for anal sex) is the best form of protection from HIV as well as other STIs and unplanned pregnancies. HIV is not spread through kissing, sharing cups and cutlery, normal social contact, toilet seats or mosquitoes.