What is HIV/AIDS?

catie The most up-to-date information for Canadians living with HIV can be found on the CATIE website. For more basic information, see below.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus is the virus that causes AIDS

Human — only humans can be infected.

Immunodeficiency — Attacks the immune system, breaking it down and making it weaker.

Virus — infectious agents that attacks the cells

Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome

Acquired — means that the disease is not hereditary but develops after birth from contact with a disease causing agent (in this case, HIV).

Immunodeficiency — means that the disease is characterized by a weakening of the immune system.

Syndrome — refers to a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease. In the case of AIDS this can include the development of certain infections.

Routes of transmission for HIV are:

Vaginal sex
HIV is found in the sexual fluids of an infected person. For a man, this means the pre-cum and semen fluids that come out of the penis before and during sex. For a woman, it means HIV is in the vaginal fluids which are produced by the vagina to keep it clean and to help make intercourse easier.If a man with HIV has vaginal intercourse without a condom infected fluid can pass into the woman’s bloodstream through the vagina. The risk of HIV transmission is increased if the woman has a cut or sore inside or around her vagina; this will make it easier for infected fluid to enter her bloodstream. Such a cut or sore might not always be visible and could be so small that the woman wouldn’t know about it.

If a woman with HIV has sexual intercourse without a condom, HIV could get into the man’s blood through a sore patch on his penis or by getting into his urethra (the tube that runs down the penis) or underneath his foreskin (if he has one).

If there is any contact with blood during sex, this increases the risk of infection. For example, there may be blood in the vagina if intercourse occurs during a woman’s period.

Oral sex
Oral sex with an infected partner does carry a small risk of HIV infection. If a person gives oral sex (licking or sucking a man’s penis) to a man with HIV, the infected fluid could get into the mouth. If the person has bleeding gums or tiny sores or ulcers somewhere in their mouth, there is a risk of the infected fluid entering their bloodstream.The same is true if infected sexual fluids from a woman get into the mouth of her partner.

There is also a small risk if a person with HIV gives oral sex when they have bleeding gums or a bleeding wound in their mouth. Saliva does not pose a risk.

HIV infection through oral sex alone seems to be very rare, and there are things you can do to protect yourself.

Anal sex
If a couple have anal intercourse the risk of infection is greater than with vaginal intercourse. The lining of the anus is more delicate than the lining of the vagina, so it’s more likely to be damaged during intercourse and any contact with blood during sex increases the risk of infection. Further, secretions from the anus can carry the virus and make its way into the head of the penis, posing a risk for infection.

Injecting drugs
Injecting drug users are one of the most high-risk groups for exposure to HIV. Sharing injecting equipment is a very efficient way to transmit blood-borne viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Sharing needles and “works” (syringes, spoons, filters and water) is thought to be three times more likely to transmit HIV than sexual intercourse. Disinfecting equipment between uses can reduce the chance of transmission, but does not eliminate it entirely.

Blood transfusions
Some people have been infected through a transfusion of infected blood. These days, in most countries all the blood used for transfusions is tested for HIV. In those countries where the blood has been tested, HIV infection through blood transfusions is now extremely rare.

Blood products
Blood products, such as those used by people with hemophilia, are now heat-treated to make them safe.

Vertical (mother to child) transmission
An infected pregnant woman can pass the virus on to her unborn baby either before or during birth. HIV can also be passed on during breastfeeding.If a woman knows that she is infected with HIV, there are drugs that she can take to greatly reduce the chances of her child becoming infected.

Infection in the health-care settings
Health-care workers on rare occasion have become infected with HIV by being stuck with needles containing HIV-infected blood. A few have also become infected by HIV-infected blood getting into the bloodstream through an open cut or splashes into a mucous membrane (e.g. eyes or the inside of the nose).There have only been a few documented instances of patients becoming infected by a health-care worker.

Tattoos/Piercings
Anything that potentially allows another person’s body fluids to get into your bloodstream carries a risk. If the equipment has not been sterilized before having a tattoo or piercing, there could be a significant risk of exposure if the person before was HIV positive.If you are thinking of having a tattoo or piercing, ask staff at the shop what procedures they take to avoid infection.

Sex Toys
Sex toys should not be shared without properly cleansing them or protecting them with condoms. Sex toys can have traces of blood, vaginal fluid, anal fluid, and seminal fluid on them when used on a person.Once you have finished using a sex toy you should wash and disinfect it before using it on your partners. If you do not wish to wash and disinfect your sex toy, use a condom and lube when using it on a partner. Make sure to re-lube and use a new condom each time a sex toy is used on a person and yourself when previously used on someone else.

Preventing HIV Transmission

We now have more options when it comes to preventing HIV transmission. Condoms. Undetectable viral load. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Read more on their effectiveness here.