HIV and AIDS: a factsheet

Tuesday, November 23, 2004
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that is spread by sexual or blood-borne contact. HIV attacks the immune system, but it may appear dormant for many years before increasing immune breakdown leads to the full-scale phase known as AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome). Because the body's defence mechanisms are slowly broken down by HIV, it becomes increasingly difficult for the affected person to fight infection. Therefore, AIDS deaths are often caused by relatively common ailments such as pneumonia.

Recently there has been a move away from labelling HIV-related deaths as AIDS. Many practitioners prefer to call them "advanced HIV" or "late stage" HIV.

Can HIV be cured?
At present, there is no permanent cure for either stage of the infection. There are, however, a number of drugs that slow the virus's progress — most effectively a group of drugs called antiretrovirals (ART). Combination therapy has also been shown to be effective: taking different types of drugs at the same time. This means, though, that the person with HIV is reliant on taking a large number of drugs each day, some of which may create side effects.

How would I get HIV?
The usual way people come into contact with HIV is through sexual activity — semen, vaginal fluids and menstrual blood can all carry the virus in significant enough quantities to transmit it. However, infected needles shared during drug use or used for medical treatment in an affected country may also pass on the virus, as can breastmilk from an HIV-positive mother. There have been cases of HIV transmission during organ transplants or blood transfusions, though Australia screens its donors thoroughly for the HIV virus. Where pregnant women carry the HIV virus, there is a significant chance that the infant will become infected, through childbirth or through breastfeeding.

How can I avoid getting HIV?

  • Whether heterosexual or gay, always use a condom when having sex.
  • If you're an intravenous drug user, never share needles.
  • When travelling overseas to areas where HIV is more widespread, take a pack of clean hypodermic syringes that may be used for emergency medical treatment.
  • Don't share razors or any object where blood may be passed from one person to another.
  • You can't get HIV from kissing, shaking hands, using public toilet seats or sitting in the same area as somebody who carries the virus.

How do I know if I have HIV?
Because HIV often manifests as a "parasitic" illness (eg. pneumonia), the symptoms may be many and varied. Often these include extreme fatigue, as the body becomes weakened and unable to fight the infection(s).

The only sure way to know if you have HIV is to have a blood test. If you have very recently had an HIV-risky experience — for example, unprotected sex — it is likely that you will be asked back in another three months for another blood test. This is because it takes that length of time for HIV to develop in sufficient quantities to be detectable in your blood.

What should I do if I have HIV?
Medical advice from a qualified practitioner should always be sought and, depending on the area in which you live, specialist treatment will probably be given. This will determine the level of medication prescribed. At the same time, counselling may be offered to help you come to terms with having the virus.

In general terms, keeping well is essential for your body to maintain its immune system. Eat a healthy, balanced diet, reduce your intake of alcohol and try not to overexert yourself through work or excessive social commitments. See your doctor for further information.

Where can I get further information?

  • The World Health Organisation has information on HIV incidence and treatment on a global basis.

    Article created by Jennie Meynell November 23, 2004

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