HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus infects and gradually destroys immune system cells, reducing the body's protection against infection and cancers. A person infected with HIV is infected for life - there's no cure.
Over time, as the immune system weakens, a person with HIV may develop rare infections or cancers. When these are particularly serious, the person is said to have acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Causes And Risk Factors
HIV can only be passed on if infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk get inside another person's body.
The two main ways in which a person can become infected are:
Vaginal or anal sexual intercourse (without a condom) with an infected person.Using a needle or syringe that's already been used by someone who's infected.
An infected pregnant woman can also pass the virus to her unborn baby, before or during the birth, or through breastfeeding. Improved treatment and care for women with HIV means far fewer children are now born with HIV in the UK.
Other potential routes of transmission include:
Giving and receiving first aid, although transmission will only occur if significant amounts of HIV-infected blood pass from one person to another.Contact with used needles and syringes, if infected blood is transferred.Giving and receiving oral sex, although there are very few proven instances of this, and usually transmission will only occur if a person has cuts or sores in their mouth.
Seeing a dentist, doctor or nurse, although it's extremely rare for HIV to be passed from a healthcare professional to a patient, as all medical instruments are sterilised or used only once.In extremely rare cases, through biting or sports, if HIV-infected blood gets into a wound or cut.Kissing, although generally this won't pass on HIV as saliva doesn't contain a high enough concentration of HIV, and the only risk would be if both people had noticeably bleeding cuts and sores in their mouths.
The risk of transmission through any of the above is small, but it exists so care should always be taken.
Although blood transfusions and use of blood products are a potential route of transmission, all blood and organ donors in the UK are screened for HIV before the blood or body organ is used. Other countries may not have the same standards as the UK, so always check if you're travelling outside the UK.
An estimated 86,500 adults are living with HIV in the UK, according to the figures from 2009, but up to a quarter of those people haven’t been diagnosed, which means they don't know they’re infected.
In some communities in the UK, particularly gay and African communities, there are a higher number of people who have HIV.
Symptoms Of HIV
There are no immediate signs or symptoms after infection. Research has shown that after a few weeks some people experience flu-like symptoms, but these usually go undiagnosed. The only way to know if you have HIV is to be tested.
If you're worried you could have caught HIV, it's important to get tested. The test is free and available from your GP or from any genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic. GUM clinics are usually within a hospital and are completely confidential - your GP won't be informed without your consent. You can also go anonymously.
The test looks for HIV antibodies in the blood. It takes three months for antibodies to develop, so if you test soon after possible infection the result may be inaccurate. A second test at 12 weeks after possible risk to the virus will give you a conclusive result.
A trained counsellor will explain the test procedure and discuss possible results. You normally have to wait one week for a result.
To Find A GUM Clinic:
Call the Department of Health's sexual health helpline on 0800 567 123 Use the FPA's GUM clinic search www.fpa.org.uk/Findaclinic.
There are also special rapid testing clinics. Pregnant women attending antenatal services and women attending some gynaecology services will be offered an HIV test.
Treatment And Recovery
There's no cure for HIV, but there are drugs called antiretrovirals that can help prevent someone infected with HIV from becoming ill. These drugs can significantly increase the life expectancy of someone with HIV, but the drugs must be taken every day for life, otherwise the treatment will stop being effective and the person affected may become ill.
Drug Treatment Is Free In The UK.
Treatment consists of taking several drugs together, which is known as combination therapy. Typical combinations include two drugs from the NRTI group (nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, also known as 'nukes') plus an NNRTI ('non-nuke') or a protease inhibitor.
Newer types of antiretrovirals such as entry inhibitors are usually reserved for people who have to switch treatments because of side-effects, or because the first drug combination stops working.
Research continues around the world to develop a HIV vaccine. Progress is being made, although it's likely to be a number of years before such a treatment is widely available.
Advice And Support
Go to your GP, a GUM clinic or a sexual health clinic. All services are confidential.
You can call FPA's helpline on 0845 122 8690 (if you're in Northern Ireland call 0845 122 8687) or THT Direct on 0845 122 1200.