Updated: Apr 12, 2021
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. That is a bit wordy, so let us break it down.
Human – HIV can only affect humans, like you or me.
Immuno – Meaning your immune system, which is your body’s built-in defence against illnesses.
Deficiency – This means something isn’t working the way it should.
Virus – A tiny germ that can only reproduce if it is within a living being.
This means the virus attacks the cells in your immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight everyday infections and diseases.
HIV and AIDS are not the same things. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is the name used to describe a variety of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. Meaning HIV if left untreated would lead to AIDS.
World AIDS day is on the 1st of December every year since 1988, it is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV, and mourning those who tragically lost their lives to the disease.
How does it spread?
If someone is HIV positive and has a detectable viral load (this is the amount of HIV in the persons' blood), they can pass it on through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal mucus and breast milk. So in summary;
HIV’s 3 transmission routes,
Unprotected sex (vaginal and anal)
Through blood-to-blood contact
Mother to baby (however screenings are done during pregnancy to prevent this)
It’s important to break down previous myths around HIV. You CANNOT get HIV through kissing, sharing cutlery, sharing towels, or from a toilet seat. HIV is also not a ‘gay disease’ – this misconception stems from there being a massive outbreak of HIV in the gay community during the 1980s when the virus was new and not fully understood. Anyone can contract HIV so it’s important to practice safer sex.
Most people experience flu-like symptoms 2-6 weeks after they are infected, which can last for a week or 2. Common symptoms are a sore throat, fever and a rash, but it is unlikely you would associate these symptoms with being infected with HIV. However, after this passes, you may not have any serious symptoms for years, meaning it could easily go undetected! The virus will however still be causing damage to your immune system. It is estimated that around 13% of people who are HIV positive don’t know it yet. This is why wearing a condom to protect yourself is so important – and getting regular sexual health checkups.
There is currently no cure for HIV, but it is no longer a death sentence and can be treated like many other chronic illnesses. Science and medicine have come such a long way since the 1980s.
Antiretroviral medicines are used to treat HIV. This works by stopping the virus from replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and therefore preventing further damage. Antiretroviral Medication or ART as it is more commonly known, is a combination of medicines that are taken daily in tablet form. The correct dosage of medication will be worked out by a specialized doctor, but it is equally important to look after yourself to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
If the medication is taken correctly and you are seen regularly by a health professional for checkups you can have an ‘undetectable viral load’, but what does that really mean?
An undetectable viral load means that the level of HIV virus in your body is now low enough not to be detected, and you can’t pass it on to your partner when you have unprotected sex. This is what is meant if you see anyone say U=U – it means undetectable = untransmittable! (This only applies to sex though. HIV can still be passed through blood-to-blood contact)
It’s amazing how far science and medicine have come– but a lot still needs to be done concerning the stigma and misinformation that is still prevalent in today’s society surrounding HIV. Knowledge is power – share this blog with a friend or work colleagues to continue the much-needed conversation.