HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s a virus that’s passed from person to person through the blood stream. Once HIV is in the blood stream, it begins to attack a person’s immune system and works to kill off healthy immune system cells.
There’s currently no cure for HIV; once a person is diagnosed with the virus it stays in their system for life. There are, however, many quality medications available to help people who live with HIV.
HIV belongs to a group of viruses called Retroviruses which work by invading the genetic material of cells within your body. Normally, the body’s immune system would fight off such a virus, but HIV stops this from happening by infecting CD4, or T-cells, which are the cells that fight off infection. The virus can live in the body for years without causing obvious damage, though it will continue to constantly replicating.
A person infected with HIV is described as "HIV positive", meaning that they receive a "positive" result from a blood test for HIV infection.
Many people with HIV continue to look and feel well throughout their lifetime. They may not even be aware that they are living with the virus. However, many HIV positive people do eventually develop different infections and cancers that the body would otherwise normally be able to fight. This can lead to an HIV positive person being diagnosed with AIDS.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is an advanced form of HIV. Not everyone that has HIV develops AIDS, largely thanks to advances in medications.
AIDS can develop when HIV weakens a person’s immune system so their body is no longer able to protect itself against infections and diseases that a normal immune system would fight off.
As a result, an HIV positive person may show symptoms of different infections and diseases called opportunistic infections. When someone shows symptoms of one or more of these infections, they are considered to have AIDS.
Different people with AIDS may experience different clinical problems, depending on what specific opportunistic infections they develop.
People who are diagnosed with AIDS can recover and regain their health, but they will still be HIV positive.
HIV weakens the immune system by attacking the CD4 cells, or T4-cells (a subset of the white blood cells), in a person. So, an already stressed immune system is vulnerable and presents an opportunity for other infections and viruses to cause people living with HIV to become ill.
While people who don’t have HIV can get opportunistic infections because of other health complications like cancer, people with HIV are more likely to develop them. Opportunistic infections are more frequent and more severe in people with HIV, and can often lead to an AIDS diagnosis.
As your doctor would monitor your general health, CD4 counts and viral load, you would be able to keep an eye on any risks from opportunistic infections. Nowadays, studies show that the use of prophylaxis and anti-HIV treatment are delaying opportunistic infections that may have otherwise occurred in the past. It is important that those living with HIV stay on treatment, as stopping treatment may increase the risk of opportunistic infections.
There are only a few ways HIV can be transmitted. In New Zealand, almost all HIV transmission occurs through unprotected sexual contact. There are very low rates of transmission from direct contact with blood and from mother to baby transmission.
- mucous found in the rectum
- pre-cum (the fluid that the penis produces before ejaculation)
- vaginal fluids, including menstrual blood (a woman’s period)
- breast milk
- unprotected sexual intercourse
- from mother to baby during pregnancy or childbirth or
- from breastfeeding, i.e., antenatal transmission or vertical transmission
- from blood to blood contact, e.g., sharing injection needles while using drugs or in medical settings
- Skin to skin contact, e.g., hugging
- Sharing cups, drink bottles or utensils
- Other body fluids like saliva, sweat, or urine because they do not contain enough of the virus to infect another person
Because the HIV virus cannot pass through intact latex, the best way to protect yourself from HIV transmission during sexual intercourse is to wear a condom.