Basic information

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is the virus that causes AIDS. A member of a group of viruses called retroviruses, HIV infects human cells and uses the energy and nutrients provided by those cells to grow and reproduce.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome.

It is a disease in which the body's immune system breaks down and is unable to fight off infections, known as "opportunistic infections," and other illnesses that take advantage of aweakened immune system. When a person is infected with HIV, the virus enters the body and lives and multiplies primarily in the white blood cells. These are immune cells that normally protect us from disease.

The hallmark of HIV infection is the progressive loss of a specific type of immune cell called T-helper, or CD4, cells. As the virus grows, it damages or kills these and other cells, weakening the immune system and leaving the person vulnerable to various opportunistic infections and other illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer.

A person can receive a clinical diagnosis of AIDS, if he or she has tested positive for HIV and meets one or both of these conditions:

• The presence of one or more AIDS-related infections or illnesses
• A CD4 count that has reached or fallen below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Also called the T-cell count, the CD4 count ranges from 450 to 1200 in healthy individuals

How quickly do people infected with HIV develop AIDS?

In some people, the T-cell decline and opportunistic infections that signal AIDS develop soon after infection with HIV. But most people do not develop symptoms for 10 to 12 years, and a few remain symptom-free for much longer. As with most diseases, early medical care can help prolong a person's life.

How is HIV transmitted?

A person who has HIV carries the virus in certain body fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. The virus can be transmitted only if such HIV-infected fluids enter the bloodstream of another person.

HIV must get into the bloodstream. It is not enough to be in contact with an infected fluid for HIV to be transmitted. Healthy, intact skin does not allow HIV to get into the body.

HIV can enter through an open cut or sore, or through contact with the mucous membranes. Transmission risk is very high when HIV comes in contact with the more porous mucous membranes in the genitals, the anus, and the rectum, which are inefficient barriers to HIV. Transmission is also possible through oral sex because body fluids can enter the bloodstream through cuts in the mouth.

Paths of Infection - HIV can be transmitted through:
1. Unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex
2. Direct blood contact, which may occur through needle sharing, transfusions, accidents in health care settings, or certain blood products
3. Mother to baby; before or during birth or through breast milk

How can I reduce my risk of becoming infected with HIV through sexual contact?

If you are sexually active, protect yourself against HIV by practicing safer sex.

Whenever you have sex, use a condom or "dental dam" (a square of latex recommended for use during oral-genital and oral-anal sex). When used properly and consistently, condoms are extremely effective. But remember:

• Use only latex condoms (or dental dams). Lambskin products provide little protection against HIV.
• Use only water-based lubricants. Latex condoms are virtually useless when combined with oil- or petroleum-based lubricants such as Vaseline® or hand lotion. (People with latex allergies can use polyethylene condoms with oil-based lubricants).
• Use protection each and every time you have sex.
• If necessary, consult a nurse, doctor, or health educator for guidance on the proper use of latex barriers.

Is there a cure for AIDS?

There is still no cure for AIDS. And while new drugs are helping some people who have HIV live longer, healthier lives, there are many problems associated with them:
• Anti-HIV drugs are highly toxic and can cause serious side effects, including heart damage, kidney failure, and osteoporosis. Many (perhaps even most) patients cannot tolerate long-term treatment with HAART.
• HIV mutates quickly. Even among those who do well on HAART, roughly
half of patients experience treatment failure within a year or two, often because the virus develops resistance to existing drugs. In fact, as many
as 10 to 20 percent of newly infected Americans are acquiring viral strains that may already be resistant to current drugs.
• Because treatment regimens are unpleasant and complex, many patients miss doses of their medication. Failure to take anti-HIV drugs on schedule and in the prescribed dosage encourages the development of new drugresistant viral strains.
• Even when patients respond well to treatment, HAART does not eradicate HIV. The virus continues to replicate at low levels and often remains hidden in "reservoirs" in the body, such as in the lymph nodes and brain.

Is there a vaccine to prevent HIV infection?

Despite continued intensive research, experts believe it will be at least a decade before we have a safe, effective, and affordable AIDS vaccine. And even after a vaccine is developed, it will take many years before the millions of people at risk of HIV infection worldwide can be immunized. Until then, other HIV prevention methods, such as practicing safer sex and using sterile syringes, will remain critical.

Can you tell whether someone has HIV or AIDS?

You cannot tell by looking at someone whether he or she is infected with HIV orhas AIDS. An infected person can appear completely healthy. But anyone infected with HIV can infect other people, even if they have no symptoms.

How do I know if I’m infected?

Immediately after infection, some people may develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistently swollen glands. Even if you look and feel healthy, you may be infected. The only way to know your HIV status for sure is to be tested for HIV antibodies-proteins the body produces in an effort to fight off infection. This usually requires a blood sample. If a person's blood has HIV antibodies, that means the person is infected.