HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that harms the immune system by destroying the white blood cells that fight infection. This can make a person living with HIV more vulnerable to other infections and health conditions such as cancer.
HIV can be treated and controlled by highly effective combined anti-retroviral treatments (cART) also know as anti-retroviral treatments (ARTs) or HIV medications. It is no longer a death sentence. Instead, it is a lifelong chronic manageable health condition, like diabetes or heart disease. If HIV is not treated by medication, over a number of years it will compromise the immune system to the point where acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS develops. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV.
HIV ART medications slows the progression of HIV virus as well as prevent secondary infections and complications which mean people diagnosed with HIV have a life expectancy similar to that of someone without HIV.
How is HIV transmitted?
Anyone can contract HIV, no matter what your age, background, gender or sexual orientation may be.
HIV can be passed on if the semen, blood, vaginal fluid, anal fluid or breast milk of a person living with HIV who has a detectable viral load comes into contact with the bloodstream of a person who does not have HIV.
There are five ways you can contract HIV:
- Anal or vaginal sex without a condom,
- Sharing injecting equipment (i.e. needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs) or unsterile tattooing, cutting or piercing equipment,
- From mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding,
- Through blood transfusions and tissue transplantation that are not subjected to stringent screening and testing,
- Through accidental needlestick injuries, such as in a health care setting
You cannot get HIV from hugging, shaking hands, saliva or spit, kissing, mosquitos, sharing food, dishes, cutlery or toilets.
How is HIV prevented?
HIV can be prevented in a number of ways.
Know your HIV status
When you are regularly tested for HIV you protect your own health and your partner’s health. To get tested you can go to any GP (it’ll be free if you go to a bulk billed practice), any sexual health clinic in NSW or Aboriginal community health services. If you have multiple partners (e.g. 3-5 a month) it’s recommended you are tested every three months otherwise getting tested every six months is a good rule. At the very least its recommended to get tested once every 12 months even if you are in a monogamous relationship.
Male and female condoms are the most effective way to reduce both unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV. You can buy condoms at your local pharmacy or grocery store and can access them for free from any sexual health clinic.
Using sterile injecting equipment
Using sterile injecting equipment decreases incidences of sharing and re-using injecting equipment. There are a number of Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs) across NSW where you can access free, sterile equipment confidentially.
Use sterile body and tattoo equipment and procedures
Whenever a tattoo or piercing procedure is performed without using sterile equipment and universal precautions, there may be a risk of bacterial, fungal or other blood-borne viruses (BBVs) such as Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and Hepatitis C virus (HCV) including HIV. Avoid getting tattoos or piercings in countries outside Australia unless you are sure high standards of infection control practices or universal precautions are followed. For more information see Positive Life NSW’s HIV & Tattoos and Piercings Factsheet.
Use Treatment as Prevention (TasP) also known as U=U
When people living with HIV take HIV medication as prescribed by a HIV specialist, they suppress the level of HIV virus in their bloodstream. Once they have an undetectable viral load (UVL) for at least six months, they cannot pass HIV on during sex.
Click here to learn more about TasP, or see Positive Life NSW’s TasP Factsheet.
PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is an antiretroviral medication taken by people who do not have HIV to prevent HIV infection if they are exposed to HIV. PrEP doesn’t protect from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as hepatitis C.
Use PEP in an emergency
PEP or post-exposure prophylaxis, is an emergency treatment started within 72 hours after possible exposure to HIV. It is taken over four-weeks to keep the HIV virus from replicating and prevent HIV acquisition.
Working with your HIV clinicians if you are living with HIV and expect to give birth
Taking HIV medication during pregnancy and working together with your HIV healthcare team can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to your baby. It is recommended that mothers living with HIV in Australia are supported by their HIV specialists about their feeding options.