HIV: The Basics – An Overview
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
HIV attacks the immune system’s soldiers – the CD4 cells. When the immune system loses too many CD4 cells, you are less able to fight off infection and can develop serious opportunistic infections (OIs). A person is diagnosed with AIDS when he or she has less than 200 CD4 cells and/or one of 21 AIDS-defining OIs.
- Common myth: “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.”
- Truth: If you don’t have HIV, you can’t get AIDS. If you have AIDS, you have HIV. There is 20 years of solid scientific proof on this. AIDS is not caused by party drugs, AZT, government conspiracies, or anything else but a virus.
The HIV Test
There is only one reliable way to find out your HIV status and that is to take the HIV test. The most common test is an antibody test called ELISA. A positive result means you have antibodies for HIV and you are infected with the virus.
- Common myth: “The HIV test can’t be trusted.”
- Truth: The HIV antibody test is one of the most reliable medical tests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is more than 99% accurate. In addition, all positive results are confirmed with another test (called the Western Blot) to insure no mistakes are made.
Why Should I get Tested if There is no Cure for HIV?
There is no cure for HIV. But there are drugs that can slow down the virus and protect your immune system. There are also drugs to treat and prevent OIs. If you do not know your status you cannot get the health care and treatment you may need to stay well. You are also more likely to unknowingly pass HIV to others.
- Common myth: “It’s not AIDS that kills people, it’s the medicines they take!”
- Truth: HIV drugs can help keep people healthy for a longer time. People died from AIDS before AZT or any other drugs came out. In fact, death rates have gone down a great deal in the U.S. since new HIV medications came out in the mid-nineties.
HIV is only spread through the following body fluids:
- – Blood
- – Semen
- – Vaginal fluids
- – Breast milk
The most common ways HIV is passed from one person to another are:
- – Reusing and sharing needles
- – Unprotected sex
- – Mother-to-child
- – During pregnancy, during birth, or through breastfeeding
To reduce the risk of HIV transmission:
- Do not reuse or share dirty needles: Clean needles with a bleach solution before reusing them or use fresh needles each time.
- Do not have unprotected sex: Use a condom every time you have sex, especially for anal and vaginal intercourse, which are the riskiest sexual activities.
- Get tested if you are pregnant or considering pregnancy: HIV+ mothers can pass the virus to their babies while pregnant, during birth, or by breastfeeding. Advances in treatments have significantly reduced the risk of a baby getting HIV from its mother when precautions are taken.
- Common myth: “HIV can be spread through casual contact.
- Truth: HIV cannot be spread through tears, sweat, and saliva. Casual contact is not risky because it does not include contact with infectious body fluids. Examples of casual contact include: social kissing, use of public facilities (pools, theaters, bathrooms), sharing drinks or eating utensils, etc. Insect bites do not transmit HIV.
Why do I Need to get Tested for HIV?
Many HIV+ people are unaware of their status. They may feel healthy and not think they are at risk. But anyone of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or social or economic class can become infected. It is what you do that puts you at risk. If you have used dirty needles or had unprotected sex, a sexually transmitted disease, or hepatitis C you should be tested.
- Common myth: “Straight people don’t get HIV.”
- Truth: The majority of HIV+ people worldwide are heterosexual. “Traditional” sex (vaginal intercourse) puts both partners at risk, but the woman is more vulnerable to HIV infection.
- Common myth: “I’m safe because I’m in a monogamous relationship (or married).
- Truth: You might have gotten infected before your relationship. If not, if your partner is unfaithful, or was already HIV+ before you met, you can still get HIV.
- Common myth: “Lesbians don’t get HIV.”
- Truth: Women who only have sex with women are generally at lower risk. Women who consider themselves lesbians but occasionally have sex with men can get infected that way.
Women and HIV
In the U.S., the proportion of AIDS cases among women more than tripled from 7 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2001. African-American and Hispanic women represent over 80 percent of AIDS cases reported among American women.
If HIV+ women receive adequate care and treatment in a timely manner, they appear to benefit from HIV therapy as much as men. However, there appear to be some differences in the types of side effects and how often they occur (some less, some more) for women and men.
Women and HIV
Certain gynecological (GYN) conditions are more common, more serious and/or more difficult to treat in HIV+ women than HIV- women:
- Herpes simplex virus (genital herpes)
- Human papilloma virus (warts, dysplasia)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Fungal Infections (yeast infections, vaginal candidiasis)
- Menstrual (period) Problems
HIV+ women should have regular GYN care and Pap smears since many GYN conditions do not have obvious symptoms and can get worse without your realizing it.
It is important to get tested for HIV on a regular basis. If you test HIV- take steps to stay that way. If you test HIV+ seek on-going medical care. By taking advantage of good health care and treatment, you increase your chances of living a longer and healthier life.