HIV – The Facts

What is HIV?

HIV stands for the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus. It is a virus that only affects humans and which damages the immune system (makes it deficient) and reduces its ability to fight everyday infections.

When someone is infected with HIV, the virus attaches onto the specific cells in the immune system that help protect us and keep us healthy. It eventually kills off these cells weakening the immune system so that it is unable to fight off infections and other illnesses

What is AIDS?

AIDS Stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a later stage of HIV infection, during which time someone who has the HIV virus develops frequently potential fatal infections and cancers.

Although there is currently no cure for HIV or vaccine available to prevent infection, there are now effective drug treatments that are designed to reduce the amount of HIV in the body, keep the immune system as healthy as possible and help people living with HIV to have long and healthy lives.

These treatments are proving very effective in preventing the development of AIDS related illnesses in people living with HIV.

HIV Transmission

HIV is present in most bodily fluids of infected people. However, in order for HIV to be transmitted from one person to another there has to be a good quality and quantity of virus in a bodily fluid.

Blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk can all have the right quality and quantity of virus to be infectious but there also needs to be a route of transmission for the virus in these fluids to get into someone’s body.

If someone has HIV, there is not enough HIV virus in their other bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva, tears, nasal mucus, ear wax or urine for these bodily fluids to be infectious. There is absolutely no risk of HIV transmission from coming into contact with any of these fluids.

The main routes of transmission of HIV are:-

  • Unprotected anal penetrative intercourse (sex without a condom)
  • Unprotected vaginal penetrative intercourse
  • Sharing needles and syringes for injecting drugs (such as heroin or steroids)
  • Vertical transmission from mother to baby *
  • From mother to child during breast feeding

Note*: The development of anti-HIV medication means that the risk of vertical transmission of HIV from mother to baby has been dramatically reduced. This means that most HIV positive women who have access to this treatment have given birth to HIV-negative children. The chances of women on treatment having a baby with HIV is very low ( under 1%).

It is not possible to become infected with HIV through:-

  • Touching, hugging or shaking hands
  • Kissing
  • Sharing cups, glasses, knives, forks, spoons etc.
  • Drinking from the same bottle/ can etc.
  • Eating food prepared by someone with HIV
  • Being sneezed, coughed or spat on
  • Using the same toilets or swimming pools
  • Insect /animal bites
  • Any general social contact with someone living with HIV

HIV Prevention

HIV prevention refers to practices done to prevent the spread of HIV. HIV prevention practices may be done by individuals to protect their own health, the health of their partner(s) and the health of those in their community, or may be instituted by governments or other organisations as public health policies.

The main methods of HIV prevention include:-

  • Encouraging condom use for penetrative sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal and oral)
  • Providing information and resources to intravenous drug users to enable safer injecting practice (including the provision of needle exchanges)
  • Access to treatment and support for pregnant women who are HIV positive *
  • Public health campaigns to provide people with factual information about HIV
  • HIV testing programmes to identify undiagnosed case of HIV infection – it is estimated that 25% of people with HIV do not know they have it and that they account for more than 50% of new infections. A person infected with HIV may look and feel perfectly well for many years and they may not know that they are infected, don’t get tested and unknowingly pass the virus to others during sex or by sharing injecting equipment.
  • The provision of appropriate treatment for all people living with HIV – the significant impact of effective HIV treatment in reducing infectiousness means that HIV treatment is itself a form of HIV prevention

Note* – HIV treatment works by reducing the level of HIV in the body and when this happens, the chances of passing HIV on to a partner are significantly reduced. This does not mean that HIV treatment is a replacement for condoms, but it does give HIV positive people more options for safer sex and reduces overall risk of onward transmission. The earlier HIV is detected, the more likely the treatment will be successful.

Global summary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, almost 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of AIDS related illnesses. This means that there are around 35 million people living with HIV in the world today.

There are approximately 8 million young people living with HIV in the world and around 16 million children under the age of 18 who have been made orphans because their parents have died from an HIV related illness.

HIV in the UK

It is estimated that there are over 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK, including about 75,000 people diagnosed with HIV and 25,000 who were infected but undiagnosed. Of those living with HIV in the UK, 44 per cent were gay men and 45 per cent had been infected through heterosexual sex. Many of those infected heterosexually are black African people.

In total, 4.6 per cent were infected through injecting drug use and another 1.7 per cent through mother-to-child transmission.

HIV Related Stigma

HIV related stigma is a process of devaluation of people either living with or associated with HIV and AIDS. Discrimination follows stigma and is the unfair and unjust treatment of an individual based on his or her real or perceived HIV status (UNAIDS definition).

This form of stigma and discrimination can make it more difficult for people who are living with HIV to manage their illness and can also make individuals reluctant to access HIV testing, treatment and care.

A great deal of HIV related stigma and prejudice is based on misinformation about how people can and cannot be infected with the virus. Providing opportunities for people to access accurate, factual information about HIV and HIV transmission can counter some of the myths and misunderstandings about HIV and have a positive impact in countering this form of stigma and prejudice.

There are a range of ways that everyone can contribute to reducing HIV related stigma and discrimination. Some of the ways this can be achieved are:-

  • Wearing a Red Ribbon to support people living with HIV
  • Getting informed about HIV and knowing the real facts
  • Challenging discriminatory statements or behaviours
  • Correcting HIV misinformation when we hear it
  • Supporting events/ raising money for HIV charities especially around World AIDS Day which I held on 1 Dec each year


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