HIV/AIDS – Basic Facts

Published November 18, 2008

What is HIV?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, commonly known as HIV, attacks the very cells which normally defend the body against illness.  Eventually, HIV weakens the immune system to such an extent that the body can no longer fight off other diseases and infections. 


What is AIDS?

AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is the most advanced stage of HIV.   There are two ways that doctors decide when a person infected with HIV is considered to have advanced to an AIDS diagnosis:

1. From other infections:  When a person’s immune system is so weakened by HIV that one or more specific illnesses, called opportunistic infections, takes hold.  These illnesses do not generally affect a person with a healthy immune system.    

2. From certain blood tests:  When the number of healthy immune system cells in an HIV positive person’s body drops to a certain low point, or when the amount of HIV in their blood reaches a certain high point (also called the “viral load”).

The key to slowing the progression of HIV to AIDS is early testing, care, and treatment.


Is there a difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV and AIDS are part of a continuum.  HIV is the virus that infects the body and AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV.  So, not everyone who has HIV has AIDS, but, everyone who has AIDS is infected with HIV. 

How quickly someone with HIV advances to AIDS depends on many different factors.  One important factor is how soon after HIV infection a person is diagnosed and gets into care.  Also, just like any other health problem, different people’s bodies respond differently to HIV.  So, it is important to get tested, get care if you are positive and protect yourself and your partner(s).


How does someone get HIV?

HIV spreads when infected bodily fluids from one person enter another person’s body.  Pre-cum, semen, vaginal fluids, blood and breast milk are the fluids that can transmit the virus.

Unprotected sex is the most common way that people get infected with HIV, followed by sharing needles.  Pregnant women who are HIV positive can pass HIV to their baby before or during delivery or through breastfeeding after birth.  Medications are available, however, that greatly reduce the chance of an HIV positive mother passing HIV to her baby. 


How does someone not get HIV?

Saliva, tears or sweat have never been shown to cause an HIV infection. Kissing is also safe (open mouth missing is considered very low risk.)  HIV is not spread through casual contact like holding hands, hugging, sharing drinks or sitting on public toilet seats


Who is at risk for HIV?

Often, people don’t think of themselves or their partners as being at risk, so they don’t worry about using protection or getting tested.  But anyone who has had unprotected sex, or who has injected drugs, or has had a partner who has done either of these things, or whose partner’s other partners may have done these things, may be at risk.    

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in four people who are HIV positive don’t know it.  Because so many people don’t know their status, in 2006, the CDC made a recommendation that everyone who is between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV when they receive routine medical care, just like they would get other routine tests.  

Everybody can protect themselves and their partners by knowing the facts about HIV/AIDS and taking the necessary steps to prevent its spread.


What is the link between HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

People with other types of STDs (such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes or syphilis) are at greater risk of getting HIV if they have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive.  In addition, if someone with HIV is also infected with another STD, he or she is more likely than other people who are infected with HIV to transmit the virus through sexual contact. 

The only way to know if you have an STD, including HIV, is to get tested.  Many STDs are curable, and all are treatable.  Getting treated for an STD can help prevent more serious health effects and reduce your risk of contracting HIV if you are exposed.

How do I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

* Don’t have sex (oral, anal or vaginal)
* If you do decide to have sex, use condoms each and every time  
* Get tested regularly for HIV, as well as other STDs
* Don’t share needles
* Limit your number of sexual partners and always know your partner’s HIV status


Is there a vaccine or cure for HIV?

No, there is no vaccine to prevent HIV or to cure those who are already infected. But HIV can be treated with medications called “antiretrovirals” or ARVS, which have enabled many people with HIV/AIDS to live long and healthy lives.  A person who is HIV positive must work together with their doctor to find medicines that keep them healthy as long as possible.  One important part of successful treatment is early diagnosis of HIV, which makes testing for HIV important.

Many research studies are underway to test new vaccines but an effective vaccine is likely years away from discovery. So, in the meantime, the best way to prevent HIV it to be safe!  If you are sexually active, use condoms correctly and consistently every time.

Written by BET-Staff

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