What is it?
HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes failure of part of the immune system. The immune system is important because it defends the body from infection and disease.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) refers to a range of specific illnesses that people with HIV may get when their immune system is badly damaged. These illnesses include infections and cancers.
The presence of HIV in the body is not an AIDS diagnosis. It is possible for people to have HIV for many years but show no symptoms that define AIDS.
How do you get it?
HIV is only infectious in blood, cum (semen), pre-cum, anal mucus, vaginal fluids and breast milk. A person can only become infected with HIV if one of these body fluids containing HIV gets into their body and passes into their bloodstream. For gay men, the main ways in which this occurs is through unprotected sex (fucking or being fucked without using condoms) or sharing injecting equipment.
If a HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load, this means treatments have suppressed the levels of HIV (viral load) in their blood to ‘undetectable’ levels. A HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV.
For HIV negative men having another STI can cause inflammation in the site of infection or ulcers, which increase the chances of picking up HIV.
What are the symptoms or signs?
HIV seroconversion is the term used to describe the process when someone goes from being HIV negative to HIV positive. Shortly after being infected with HIV, a person may (but not always) undergo a seroconversion illness, a severe flu-like illness that will pass in a matter of weeks. Symptoms of this may include fever, rashes, a sore throat and swollen glands. After this time a person becomes HIV-positive as the immune system creates antibodies to fight the infection.
Symptoms of ongoing HIV infection may include unexplained diarrhoea, weight loss, recurrent rashes, fever or an AIDS-related illness. AIDS-related illnesses include illnesses like pneumonia, brain infections, skin cancers, and severe fungal infections.
The common test for HIV is an antibody blood test. Antibodies are the immune system’s response to infection. It can take between 2 weeks and 3 months for the body to produce antibodies. So if an antibody test is done during this window period it is likely to show up negative.
Can it be treated?
There is no vaccine or cure for HIV, and if left untreated the infection can cause serious illness and death. Treatment for HIV is currently provided by highly active anti-viral medications to prevent further damage to the immune system. These attack the virus at different points and stages in its lifecycle.
How can it be prevented?
There are more tools then ever before to prevent HIV. You can use condoms, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) and undetectable viral load (UVL). You can use any of these options individually or combine them.
The most effective method of HIV prevention is a undetectable viral load. This is when someone who is HIV positive has reduced the amount of HIV in their body by taking medication that there is zero risk of transmitting the virus even when having condomless sex.
Most importantly someone living with HIV with a sustained undetectable viral load CANNOT pass on HIV to their sexual partners.
Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV you should consider getting PEP. If you think you may have exposed another person to HIV, let them know about PEP and where they can get it.
PEP is a 4 week course of anti-HIV drugs which may prevent HIV infection, provided the treatment is started as soon as possible after the potential exposure.
To be most effective, PEP should be started as soon as possible after exposure to HIV. If it is not started within 72 hours (3 days) it is not likely to work.
To get PEP, contact your local sexual health clinic or hospital emergency department.
Further information on PEP, including a list of clinics or hospitals can be found at www.getpep.info.