HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which attacks and destroys white blood cells (the body’s natural defence against illness). As those cells are destroyed and the virus makes copies of itself, a person’s immune system is damaged. Untreated HIV may so severely damage the immune system that it fails to offer any defense against disease. This final level of infection is called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).1
People most at risk are those who:2
The symptoms of being HIV-positive include:3
These symptoms go away on their own. A person may contract HIV and not have any other symptoms for five to ten years. This means they may not know they are HIV-positive.
If HIV is not treated, AIDS will eventually develop. Symptoms of AIDS include:3
HIV is spread by infected blood, semen, rectal fluid, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. It can only spread when infected fluid from an HIV-positive person enters the bloodstream of another person. Common entry points are the vagina, rectum, foreskin, penis opening and also broken skin.4
There is no vaccine to protect against HIV but there are some protective behaviours. These include getting regular tests for STIs, reducing the number of sex partners, and using male and female condoms properly. Those who inject drugs can reduce their risk by not sharing drug paraphernalia. HIV-positive pregnant women can protect their babies by taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and not breastfeeding.5
In addition, anyone who receives a tattoo or body piercing or undergoes electrolysis or acupuncture should ensure service providers follow universal precautions for controlling infection.5 Finally, travellers to another country for medical care should ensure the blood and blood products used are screened for HIV and the facility follows proper infection practices.5
There is no cure for HIV though it can be treated with antiretroviral drugs. These drugs help lower the level of HIV in the body, slow the spread of the virus within the body, and help the immune system fight off other infections. Treatment can extend life and decrease the spread of the virus, especially when started early. Treatment is also available for many of the infections and diseases associated with having AIDS.6
For further information regarding HIV and AIDS, please speak with your healthcare provider.