AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, a pattern of devastating infections caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which attacks and destroys certain white blood cells that are essential to the body’s immune system. When HIV infects a cell, it combines with that cell’s genetic material and may lie inactive for years. Most people infected with HIV are still healthy and can live for years with no symptoms or only minor illnesses. They are infected with HIV, but they do not have AIDS. After a variable period of time, the virus becomes activated and then leads progressively to serious infections and other conditions that characterize AIDS. Although there are treatments that can extend life, AIDS is a fatal disease.
HIV/AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s. Since then the number of people infected with HIV has increased rapidly throughout the world. HIV/AIDS has become the most widely talked about the condition in history. However, each day more and more people are becoming infected. We do not use what we know is right to protect ourselves from infection with the virus. To make matters worse, many people are infected with HIV, yet do not have an HIV test to find out their status so they can get help and support. The key is information and action. The first step is to find out whether you are living with HIV or not. If you are living with HIV, you can get information about how to stay healthy as well as how to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you are not living with HIV, you can get information about how to remain that way.
How is HIV spread?
HIV is spread in the following ways:
- Sexual intercourse HIV can be found in the semen and vaginal fluids of a person who is HIV positive. He or she can pass HIV onto another person through unprotected sex (not using a condom) vaginal, oral or anal sex.
- Pregnancy HIV may be passed onto a baby from an HIV positive mother. Not all HIV positive mothers give birth to babies that are HIV positive. The risk of passing on HIV to the babies increases if the mother is sick with an AIDS illness or if the mother gets infected with HIV during pregnancy. HIV can be passed to the baby during:
- The pregnancy
- At the time of delivery
- In breast milk
Many women only find out they have HIV when they fall pregnant. By this time the unborn child is at risk of getting HIV. The chances of HIV passing from mother to child are between 20 and 40% during pregnancy and at the time of delivery. The risk of infection increases if the mother breastfeeds. There are now medicines available to help reduce the spread of HIV to the baby.
- Blood HIV can pass from one person to another through his or her blood. Sometimes sick people are given extra blood through a blood transfusion. In South Africa, blood transfusions are safe because blood is tested before it is given to sick people. HIV can be passed on in very small amounts of blood, for example when people share razor blades that are not cleaned properly. HIV can also be passed on by injecting drugs and sharing needles. People most at risk of this happening are:
- Injecting drug users
- Doctors and nurses treating patients with HIV
HIV can also be passed on when handling blood without gloves, e.g. after an accident, as this blood may contain the HIV germ that could enter through cuts and open wounds.
Doctors agree that you cannot get HIV from:
- Eating food prepared by someone with HIV
- Sharing cups, mugs, plates, food, spoons, forks, etc
- Door handles or rails
- Sneezing or coughing
- Tears or saliva
- Toilet seats
- Holding or shaking hands
- Swimming pools or baths
- Working or attending school with someone who is HIV positive
- Donating blood
- Living with someone who has HIV
- Being next to or close to someone who has HIV
- Kissing, hugging or touching
What are the symptoms of HIV infection?
Within a month or two of getting infected with HIV, many people (but not all) can develop flu-like symptoms, swollen glands or a rash. These symptoms usually go away within a couple of weeks, and a person can look and feel well for many years before the symptoms come back.
This period when you look and feel well can last five to seven years or longer in adults and two to five years or longer in children born with HIV. As HIV continues to attack the immune system, the illnesses start to show again.
How do I stop myself from being infected with HIV?
There is no cure for HIV. Once a person has HIV, they will remain infected for the rest of their life. Therefore preventing the spread is the most important way of controlling HIV.
The following actions will prevent the spread of HIV:
- Protected sex – with a condom, used correctly.
- Sex without penetration – this is when a man’s penis does not enter the woman’s vagina or anus. This is also a safe sex. Sex can be a way of showing love but not the only way. You can also show love by kissing, touching and holding each other.
- You can have a sexual climax without penetration by rubbing the person’s private parts with hands or fingers.
- It is important to reduce the number of different sexual partners.
- New relationships – you should use a condom. Both of you should go for an HIV test before you stop using condoms. It is safe to have sex without protection if both HIV tests are negative. This means you are both free of HIV.
- Remember that both partners must stay in a sexually faithful relationship with only each other, otherwise, the sex will no longer be safe. This is a faithful relationship.