HIV Guide

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a retrovirus transferred by close or intimate contact with an infected individual. Discovered in America in the 1980's the virus has spread, becoming a global pandemic in the present day. During the period of its discovery there was much confusion as to what was causing the sudden appearance of otherwise healthy people presenting with opportunistic infections caused by a severely weakened immune system.

The causes of this acquired immunodeficiency (AIDs) were initially unknown, giving rise to a number of false beliefs about how the disease spread and what it was. When HIV was discovered it soon became apparent that it was the causative agent for these cases.

HIV is now known to spread via contact with the infected bodily fluids or mucus membranes of a carrier. Only some bodily fluids contain high enough concentrations of the virus to be able to cause infection. Blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal fluid are the four most likely to be made contact with. Other fluids containing high concentrations of the virus but which you are less likely to come into contact with are brain and spinal fluid, amniotic fluid and synovial fluid (the fluid found in bone joints). HIV is not transferred through saliva, tears, urine or faeces.

When the virus enters a new host it seeks to enter the immune system's t-cells. When it does this it sets about making copies of itself using the cells own reproduction mechanisms. When it replicates the virus varies itself to a large enough extent that the body's immune system cannot mount an effective defence. This is the basis of the viruses continued success today and the difficulty in finding a cure for it.

Unprotected sex with an infected individual is a high risk activity and one of the most common ways in which people get infected with the virus. Condoms and water based lubricant should be used to act as a physical barrier against infection and to prevent the condom from tearing.

Injecting drug users are also at high risk as direct blood transfer can occur when sharing needles. If this happens with somebody who is HIV positive then the infection risk is significant. To counteract this, needles should not be shared. New, safe needles may be obtained from a needle bank's needle exchange program.

Pregnant mothers are routinely tested for HIV when they first become pregnant. This is because if HIV is caught early, the baby is less likely to become infected. Antiretrovirals can be used during pregnancy and birth, along with abstaining from breastfeeding the baby these methods drastically reduce its chances of catching the disease. When these precautions are taken many babies from HIV positive mothers are born uninfected.

Babies who do become infected with HIV are not usually positively identified until specialist testing is carried out at 6 and 12 weeks of age. If the baby is identified as HIV positive and has a weakened immune system then liquid antiretrovirals are administered to the baby as these are easier to swallow. The current drugs available can extend the life expectancy of these babies to almost normal levels.

The symptoms of HIV are similar to other illnesses such as the flu. This can lead an infected individual to be unaware that they have the disease, with more severe symptoms not being present until the later stages. This is another reason why HIV is so easily spread, many people are not even aware they have it.

If you feel that you may have been exposed to HIV you need to get tested either at your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, sexual health clinic or GP. This involves taking a small sample of blood from either the arm or finger to check for HIV antibodies. If  you are found to be HIV positive further information will be given to you by your healthcare provider.

Treatments available include a post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) consisting of antiretrovirals to prevent full blown infection within 72 hours of exposure. When infected with HIV, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) may be used to drastically slow down the progression of the disease. This treatment involves the use of multiple antiretrovirals concurrently to prevent the virus from adapting to the drugs. In the future it is hoped that potential treatments such as vaccines, more effective antiretroviral drugs and other methods will improve the prospects of those infected with HIV or prevent infection entirely.

Unfortunately discrimination against those with HIV may still be a problem for some. This is usually as a consequence of misinformation or being uniformed about both HIV itself and how it can be spread. There are various charities available which can be of help in a situation where discrimination is affecting somebody coping with HIV.

There are also many fake cures available for HIV on both the internet and elsewhere. There is currently no known cure for HIV with many 'cures' available doing nothing or being actively detrimental to a users health. In the same respect online conspiracy theories which deny the existence of HIV or that it causes immune deficiency are not supported by the medical or scientific communities.

History & Discovery of HIV »