What is HIV?
HIV, also known as in human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that affects an infected person’s immune system. Untreated HIV leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In 2020, an estimated 37.6 million people are living with HIV globally. The good news is that the incidence has declined over the years, and a majority of these people are receiving therapy.
How is HIV Transmitted?
It is transmitted through bodily fluids such as semen, breast milk, vaginal fluids, and infected blood. It can be spread through unprotected sexual intercourse, from an infected mother to the baby during delivery, and sharing of needles. Very rarely, it can be transmitted through blood transfusions; however, most blood banks around the world screen for infections such as HIV and hepatitis. HIV cannot be transmitted through kissing, hugging, and sharing of cutleries.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
Not all infected patients may experience any symptoms initially, though some may experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, night sweats, body aches, tiredness, and loss of appetite. Some may find that they are more prone to mild infections like colds. Initially, infected patients may live life as normal without realising that they are infected with HIV.
It is therefore important for high-risk populations to be tested regularly for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Who should be tested for HIV?
High-risk populations include:
Sexually active people who have unprotected sex
Recent sexual intercourse with someone diagnosed with HIV
Injection drug users
Diagnosed with other STDs such as herpes, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea
Recent tattoos from unregulated shops
Recent unsafe blood transfusions or other medical procedures
Health workers with recent needlestick injuries
For those who are not at high risk, the recommended testing is at least a one-time screening between the ages of 13 to 75. However, pregnant women should be tested in the first trimester of the pregnancy even without any risk factors.
The frequency of testing varies, but some high-risk populations such as men who have sex with men (MSM) with sexual partners of unknown status should be tested every three to six months.
Is HIV curable? Is there treatment for HIV?
Unfortunately, HIV is not curable. However, patients who are started on antiretroviral therapy can go on to have perfectly normal lives. Life expectancy is also greater than before.
How do I prevent myself (and others) from getting HIV?
If you are sexually active with multiple partners, use barrier protection such as condoms. You could also have an open and honest discussion about their HIV-status. If they are known to have HIV, a form of medication, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), minimises the risks of getting HIV. You should also be tested for HIV and other STDs.
If you are an injection drug user, use sterile and unopened syringes every time you inject and safely dispose of the needles after use. You may also consider taking PrEP. You should also speak to a healthcare professional about how to stop depending on drugs. He/She/They will be able to refer you to the right services and provide the necessary treatment for you. For more information, refer to the page on substance use.
What if I have HIV and I am pregnant?
Antiretroviral therapy is extremely effective and will be able to minimise the risks of transmission from mother to child. You should speak to your doctor about the type of medications and discuss the possible side effects if any. He/She/They will be able to recommend the right medications for you and your unborn baby. HIV can be transmitted through breast milk - if you would like to breastfeed you should speak with your doctor as guidelines vary worldwide. However, apart from taking several precautions, you may go on to have a normal pregnancy journey and deliver a healthy baby.
For more information, please visit: https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet, https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids