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HIV Basics

Over the course of the domestic epidemic HIV or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus has progressed from what was once considered a death sentence to now a longterm chronic illness. Studies have shown that an individual who begins treatment and remains adherent to their medication is 96% less likely to transmit the virus, However, 1 in 5 people living with HIV don’t know that they have it. Of those that do, only 1 in 4 are on medications, adherent, and virally suppressed – which underscores the importance of knowing your status and being linked to care. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and in some may lead to AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Over time, and without treatment, HIV gradually destroys the body’s defenses against disease, leaving it vulnerable to many infections and cancers that do not normally develop. Even without treatment, some people living with HIV have no symptoms; some have mild health problems, while others have severe health problems associated with AIDS. With proper treatment, some people now living with HIV may never develop AIDS. Studies suggest that starting treatment early in the course of infection can significantly improve long-term treatment success with near normal life expectancy.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is a virus. AIDS is a condition brought about by the virus HIV. You can have HIV without having AIDS.

What do the acronyms HIV and AIDS stand for?

H – Human: because this virus can only infect human beings.

I – Immuno-deficiency: because the effect of the virus is to create a deficiency, or a failure to work properly, within the body’s immune system.

V – Virus: because this organism is a virus, which means one of its characteristics is that it is incapable of reproducing by itself. It reproduces by taking over the machinery of the human cell.

A – Acquired: because it is a condition one must acquire or get infected with; not something transmitted through the genes.

I – Immune: because it affects the body’s immune system, the part of the body which usually works to fight off germs such as bacteria and viruses.

D – Deficiency: because it makes the immune system deficient (makes it not work properly).

S – Syndrome: because someone with AIDS may experience a wide range of different diseases and opportunistic infections.

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How is HIV transmitted?

HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through:

• Blood (including menstrual blood
• Semen
• Vaginal secretions
• Breast milk

Blood contains the highest concentration of the virus, followed by semen, followed by vaginal fluids, followed by breast milk.

Activities That Allow HIV Transmission

Unprotected sexual contact Direct blood contact, particularly through sharing injection drug needles. Infections due to blood transfusions, accidents in health care settings or certain blood products are possible, although they are extremely rare nowadays in the United States. Mother to baby (before or during birth, or through breast milk)

Sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal): In the genitals and the rectum, HIV may infect the mucous membranes directly or enter through cuts and sores caused during intercourse (many of which would be unnoticed). Anal and vaginal intercourse are high-risk practices.

Oral sex (mouth-penis, mouth-vagina): The mouth is an inhospitable environment for HIV (in semen, vaginal fluid or blood), meaning the risk of HIV transmission through the throat, gums, and oral membranes is lower than through vaginal or anal membranes. There are documented cases where HIV was transmitted orally, so we can’t say that getting HIV-infected semen, vaginal fluid or blood in the mouth is without risk. However, oral sex is considered a low risk practice.

Sharing injection needles: An injection needle can pass blood directly from one person’s bloodstream to another. It is a very efficient way to transmit a blood-borne virus. Sharing needles is considered a high-risk practice.

Mother to Child: Mother to child transmission is now rare in the US and other developed countries because pregnant women who are HIV-positive are normally given medications to prevent the fetus from getting infected. However, it is possible for an HIV-infected mother to pass the virus directly before or during birth, or through breast milk. Breast milk contains HIV, and while small amounts of breast milk do not pose significant threat of infection to adults, it is a viable means of transmission to infants.

The following “bodily fluids” are NOT infectious:

• Saliva
• Tears
• Sweat
• Feces
• Urine

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Primary HIV infection is the first stage of HIV disease, when the virus first establishes itself in the body. Some researchers use the term acute HIV infection to describe the period of time between when a person is first infected with HIV and when antibodies against the virus are produced by the body (usually 6- 12 weeks). Some people newly infected with HIV will experience some “flu-like” symptoms. These symptoms, which usually last no more than a few days, might include fevers, chills, night sweats and rashes (not cold-like symptoms). Many other people either do not experience acute symptoms, or have symptoms so mild that they may not notice them. Given the general character of the symptoms of acute infection, they can easily have causes other than HIV, such as a flu infection. For example, if you had some risk for HIV a few days ago and are now experiencing flu-like symptoms, it might be possible that HIV is responsible for the symptoms, but it is also possible that you have some other viral infection.

What are the symptoms for AIDS?

There are no common symptoms for individuals diagnosed with AIDS. When immune system damage is more severe, people may experience opportunistic infections(called “opportunistic” because they are caused by organisms which cannot induce disease in people with normal immune systems, but take the “opportunity” to flourish in people with HIV). Most of these more severe infections, diseases, and symptoms fall under the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of AIDS. The median time to receive an AIDS diagnosis among those infected with HIV is 7-10 years.

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How long after a possible exposure should I be tested for HIV?

The time it takes for a person who has been infected with HIV to seroconvert (test positive) for HIV antibodies is commonly called the “Window Period”. Recent studies show that a test taken at least 12 weeks (3 months) after the last possible exposure to the virus provides highly accurate results. Based on those studies, many testing clinics in California and other places use a 3 month window period. Rarely, a person could take up to six months to produce antibodies and that is almost always a person with a severely compromised immune system due to another disease, such as leukemia.

What does this mean for you?

If you test negative on an antibody test taken 3 months or longer after your last possible risk of possible exposure to HIV, you can feel safe in assuming that you do not have the virus. If for some reason you feel anxiety about relying on the 3-month result, you could opt to have another test taken again at 6 months.

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