HIV: the basics

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is primarily transmitted in blood, semen and vaginal fluids via condomless sex or sharing injecting equipment. HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS.

What is AIDS?

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is not a single disease. It is a diagnosis that results from a spectrum of conditions that can occur when a person’s immune system is seriously damaged after years of attack by HIV. The terms HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable, but it is possible to move in and out of an AIDS diagnosis. It is important to remember that a person who is infected with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. However, all people with AIDS have HIV.

HIV damages the body’s immune system and renders the body vulnerable to other diseases and infections – its symptoms are most commonly similar to those of any chronic viral infection. During advanced stages of HIV infection, a person may develop any of a number of opportunistic infections considered to be AIDS defining illnesses.

Despite advances made over the course of the epidemic HIV and AIDS are still here and there is no cure or vaccine.

How is HIV detected?

HIV is detected by an HIV antibody test. It is incorrect to call it an ‘AIDS test’ because the test cannot detect AIDS, but instead detects the antibodies that are produced as a result of HIV infection. It can take up to 12 weeks for someone’s immune system to produce antibodies to HIV. This is called the ‘window period’. An HIV antibody test performed during this window period could be negative even though the person may be HIV-positive. There are now special blood tests (nucleic acid amplification) which can detect HIV infection during the window period.

What does HIV-positive mean?

A person who has a positive HIV antibody test can be referred to as being ‘HIV-positive’.

How is HIV transmitted?

The ability of HIV to live outside the body is very limited and therefore HIV is not particularly easy to transmit. It is a communicable disease, but it is not contagious like air-borne viruses such as influenza. HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, coughing or sneezing. Nor can it be transmitted by sharing glasses, cups or utensils. There are three main modes of HIV transmission:
  • Condomless anal and vaginal sexual intercourse;
  • Sharing drug injecting equipment; and
  • Mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding