HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, which then weakens the body’s ability to fight disease and infection. A common infection like the flu or a cold can be very difficult for the body to fight off after the immune system has been weakened by HIV. There is no cure for HIV but there are treatments.
People do not pass on AIDS. HIV is the virus that is being passed and then over time it may develop into AIDS. Someone is diagnosed with AIDS when HIV has weakened their immune system to the point where they have one or more infection that they can no longer fight off. Once someone’s HIV develops into AIDS, they may become very sick and this could lead to death.
Statistics Canada indicate that roughly 65 000 Canadians live with HIV and 26% of those infected don’t know it. Anyone can get HIV, no matter who they are, if they have unsafe behavior.
- What does HIV/AIDS stand for?
Human: HIV only affects humans (you can’t get it from mosquitoes!)
Immuno-deficiency: “Immuno” means immune system which is the part of our body that fights off infection. “Deficiency” means there is something wrong. So “immuno-deficiency” means that there something wrong with the immune system.
Virus: There are currently no cures for viruses, only treatment. Once someone gets HIV, they will generally have it until it turns to AIDS. When it becomes AIDS, someone would be very sick.
People get HIV, and then over time, it becomes AIDS.
Acquired: AIDS is something you get from HIV. You cannot “get AIDS” from someone, only HIV. Overtime, HIV can progress to become AIDS. That is why ’A’ stands for “acquired.”
Immune: “Immune” stands for Immune System
Deficiency: “Deficiency” means there is something wrong.
Syndrome: A syndrome is a combination of things that make you sick. So if someone has AIDS, certain infections like pneumonia, diarrhea, STI or even certain types of cancers which their body can normally fight off, now have an opportunity to make you seriously sick. These are called “Opportunistic Infections.”
There is no cure for AIDS, but there are treatments.
HIV is a reportable STI, which means if you are diagnosed with it, you are required to let your past and current sexual partners know. If you are uncomfortable contacting your partners, a health care provider can contact them for you and tell them to go for testing. Your name would not be mentioned but your partners will be informed somehow.
- How do people get HIV?
The only bodily fluids that can spread HIV are:
- Sex Fluids (Semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluid, or anal fluid)
- Breast Milk
This means that all other bodily fluids do not spread HIV. Saliva (spit), tears, sweat, urine, and vomit are no risk of passing HIV. That means you can shake hands or share a bottle of water after with someone with HIV and have next to no risk of getting the virus. The only time there is risk of HIV transmission is if blood, sex fluids or breast milk are being shared.
Higher Risk Behaviours
- Unprotected Sex: Vaginal or anal sex without a condom.
- Sharing Needles: Sharing needles for IV drugs, insulin, steroids or other things.
- Sharing Sex Toys: Sharing sex toys means sharing sex fluids that can pass HIV.
- Breast Feeding: HIV can be passed from an HIV+ parent breastfeeding a child through breast milk.
Lower Risk Behaviours
- Sharing needles used for piercing and tattoos (including home piercing and tattoos)
- Fighting: risk of exchanging blood through cuts or split knuckles
- Oral sex: there is a lower risk for HIV, but a higher risk for other STI
- “Blood Buddies” & “Bloody Knuckles”
- Sharing cutting equipment
Some of these lower risk activities are higher risk for Hepatitis C, which is also passed by blood.
- HIV Testing
- HIV testing is an important part of being healthy. It’s easy, just a blood test, but many people have not been tested. Experts say that 1/3 of Canadians who live with HIV don’t realize they are infected which means they are not in treatment (which can keep people healthy for longer).
Anyone can ask for an HIV test, and testing is recommended for anyone who,
- is sexually active or has had sex without a condom or sex dam
- has shared a needle or drug works
- has been sexually assaulted
- is pregnant
How often you get tested really depends on your level of risk. Like all medical tests in Canada, HIV testing is confidential and you can be tested by your doctor, or at a walk-in clinic, or at a teen clinic. If you don’t know which doctor to use you can call the Manitoba HIV Program Referral Line at (204)940-6089 or 1-866-449-0165. You can also get more information by calling the Canadian AIDS treatment Information Exchange Hotline at 1-800-263-1638 or visit the website at www.catie.ca.
An HIV test is a blood test. A nurse or a doctor would take a small amount of your blood, and then send it to a lab to be tested. Unless it’s rapid testing (where the results are available right away) you usually go back to the clinic after 2 weeks to find out the results of the test. They give HIV test results at the clinic rather than over the phone. This way they can make sure the results stay confidential (only you find out) and whatever the outcome, it gives you a chance to ask any questions you might have in person.
2 weeks can be a long time to wait to find out the results of an HIV test. People might be feeling anxious, frustrated, angry, in denial, or scared. It’s normal to have these feelings and sometimes it can help to talk to someone about how you are doing.
If the results are positive, there are things you can do for yourself to stay as healthy as possible,
- regularly meeting with your healthcare provider (for example, keep your appointments and try to stay on the treatment plans),
- reducing drug and alcohol use,
- eat as healthy as you can,
- exercise regularly to stay strong and fit,
- and get as much sleep and rest as you can.
Some people also find it helpful to join a support group and or try counseling.
If the test comes back with a negative (meaning there is no HIV), the health care provider will talk to you about how you can reduce your risks and stay HIV negative. They will usually ask you to come back after 1-3 months to get tested again, this is because of HIV has a “window period” when it doesn’t show up on a blood test.
HIV Window Period
There is a 1-3 month window period for HIV to show itself in someone’s blood after the point of infection. A person could pass HIV to another person right away, but HIV wouldn’t show up on a test until after the window period.
So, let’s say you went to a party and ended up having sex with someone. Then you forgot to pinch the tip of the condom before putting it on, and the condom broke, meaning you had unprotected sex. The next day, you thought, “Wow that was pretty risky. I’m going to go get an HIV test done to be on the safe side.”
After getting an HIV test, the health care provider would ask you to come back after 3 months for another test, because HIV probably wouldn’t show up on the test the very next day.
- Living with HIV
- If someone were to become infected with HIV by taking part in one of the above risky behaviours they might experience some flu-like symptoms within the first few weeks. More often though, people do not experience any physical symptoms so the only way to know is to get tested.
After someone becomes HIV positive it could take 7-10 years for them to show any signs of being sick. If someone is also engaging in heavy alcohol or drug use, this period can be much shorter. This period is called Chronic Infection. It’s important to know that during this period, someone can still infect other people with HIV if they are taking part in risky behaviours. Upon being infected with HIV, you can give to someone else almost immediately if you are engaged in risky behaviours such as unprotected sex.
Over a number of years, HIV will target the white blood cells in the immune system and destroy them. Eventually, someone will have a very difficult time fighting off certain cancers and even common infections such as a cold, the flu, or diarrhea. Once someone has more than one infection that they can’t fight off, they would be diagnosed with AIDS, which would mean they have become very sick and could die because of it.
If someone found out they had HIV early on they could live a long life with HIV without it progressing into AIDS. If someone took really good care of themselves (eating well, getting lots of rest, staying away from drugs and alcohol) and took the necessary treatments, they could live their lives without having any symptoms for up to 20 to 30 years. Magic Johnson, a former basketball player, for example, has been living with HIV since 1991 without it progressing to AIDS.
When we talk about the stigma attached to HIV we mean the negative feelings or disapproval some people have about HIV or the people living with HIV. It can be really hard to deal with a positive HIV diagnosis, especially if the people around you start treating you different or judging you. Stigma usually exists because many people don’t know have accurate info about HIV, some people are still afraid of catching it from casual contact.
We can all help to reduce the stigma against HIV. When we have accurate information, like knowing the fluids that spread HIV and how HIV is spread, we know we can friends or family with HIV! The only fluids that can transmit the virus are sex fluids (pre-cum, semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids), breast milk, and blood. HIV is not spread through the other body fluids (spit, urine, sweat, tears, saliva, poop, throw up, and boogers do not spread HIV). So we can live with, eat with, play sports with, cry with, hug, or kiss someone with HIV with no risk.
There is no cure for HIV, but there is treatment. The Manitoba HIV Program helps people find out if they have HIV and helps them to find the health care they need. Anyone in Manitoba can use the program, (204)940-6000 or toll free, 1-888-305-8647.
HIV treatment works to improve the health of someone living with HIV by building their immune system back up. The earlier someone begins treatment (as well as taking good care of themselves) the more effective the treatment can be. Newer and better treatments are coming out all the time, which means less and less people living with HIV are actually getting to the AIDS stage of the virus.