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Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s)

HIV / AIDS

HIV is a virus. Viruses infect the cells of living organisms and replicate (make new copies of themselves) within those cells. A virus can also damage human cells, which is one of the things that can make an infected creature become ill.

People can become infected with HIV from other people who already have it, and when they are infected they can then go on to infect other people. Basically, this is how HIV is spread.

HIV stands for the 'Human Immunodeficiency Virus'. Someone who is diagnosed as infected with HIV is said to be 'HIV+' or 'HIV positive'.

The immune system is a group of cells and organs that protect your body by fighting disease. The human immune system usually finds and kills viruses fairly quickly.

So if the body's immune system attacks and kills viruses, what's the problem?

Different viruses attack different parts of the body - some may attack the skin, others the lungs, and so on. The common cold is caused by a virus. What makes HIV so dangerous is that it attacks the immune system itself - the very thing that would normally get rid of a virus. It particularly attacks a special type of immune system cell known as a CD4 lymphocyte.

HIV has a number of tricks that help it to evade the body's defences, including very rapid mutation. This means that once HIV has taken hold, the immune system can never fully get rid of it.

There isn't any way to tell just by looking if someone's been infected by HIV. In fact a person infected with HIV may look and feel perfectly well for many years and may not know that they are infected. But as the person's immune system weakens they become increasingly vulnerable to illnesses, many of which they would previously have fought off easily.

The only reliable way to tell whether someone has HIV is for them to take a blood test, which can detect infection from 3 months after the virus first entered the body.

How is HIV passed on?

HIV is found in the blood and the sexual fluids of an infected person, and in the breast milk of an infected woman. HIV transmission occurs when a sufficient quantity of these fluids get into someone else's bloodstream. There are various ways a person can become infected with HIV.

Ways in which you can be infected with HIV:

  • Unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person Sexual intercourse without a condom is risky, because the virus, which is present in an infected person's sexual fluids, can pass directly into the body of their partner. This is true for unprotected vaginal and anal sex. Oral sex carries a lower risk, but again HIV transmission can occur here if a condom is not used - for example, if one partner has bleeding gums or an open cut, however small, in their mouth.
  • Contact with an infected person's blood If sufficient blood from an infected person enters someone else's body then it can pass on the virus.
  • From mother to child HIV can be transmitted from an infected woman to her baby during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding. There are special drugs that can greatly reduce the chances of this happening, but they are unavailable in much of the developing world.
  • Use of infected blood products. Many people in the past have been infected with HIV by the use of blood transfusions and blood products which were contaminated with the virus - in hospitals, for example. In much of the world this is no longer a significant risk, as blood donations are routinely tested.
  • Injecting drugs. People who use injected drugs are also vulnerable to HIV infection. In many parts of the world, often because it is illegal to possess them, injecting equipment or works are shared. A tiny amount of blood can transmit HIV, and can be injected directly into the bloodstream with the drugs.

It is not possible to become infected with HIV through:

  • sharing crockery and cutlery
  • insect / animal bites
  • touching, hugging or shaking hands
  • eating food prepared by someone with HIV
  • toilet seats

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