What is HIV/AIDS and How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV/AIDS is a deadly disease, which is currently not curable. Approximately, 36.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2017 and 940 000 people died from the disease worldwide, according to WHO.

World AIDS Day, held on 1 December each year, aims to raise awareness across the world about issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, as well as to show support for people living with HIV and to remember people who have died from the disease.

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, which is our body’s natural defence against illness. It destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called CD4 cells, often called T-helper cells, and makes copies of itself inside these cells.

As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually weakens a person’s immune system, increasing the risk of common infections like tuberculosis, as well as other opportunistic infections.

If it is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged, resulting in AIDS. However, the rate at which HIV progresses varies depending on age, general health and background.

What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), also referred to as late-stage HIV, is a set of symptoms and illnesses that develop as a result of advanced HIV infection, which has destroyed the immune system.

In AIDS, the immune system is severely weakened. People with AIDS get serious infections and health problems, and if left untreated will lead to death.

Although there is no cure for HIV and AIDS, but with the right treatment and support, people living with HIV/AIDS can lead a full and healthy life. To achieve this, it’s important to commit to taking treatment correctly. Learn more about HIV treatment.

How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV is found in body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Infection only occurs when body fluids from an infected person enter the blood stream of another person.
HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another by:

  • Having vaginal or anal sex.
  • Sharing needles or syringes for injecting drugs, piercings, or tattooing.
  • Getting stuck with a needle that has HIV-infected blood on it.
  • Getting HIV-infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids into open cuts or sores on your body.

HIV isn’t spread through saliva, sweat, tears, feces, or urine, so you can’t get HIV from holding hands, hugging, kissing, sharing eating utensils, nor when sitting on a toilet seat used by a person with HIV.

Can HIV Be Passed from Mother to Child?

HIV also can pass from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. The transmission of HIV from a HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding is called mother-to-child transmission.

If you are a pregnant woman living with HIV, treatment with a combination of HIV medicines called Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and protect your health. The treatment is most effective for preventing HIV transmission to babies when started as early as possible during pregnancy. However, there are still great benefits to beginning treatment even during labor or shortly after the baby is born.

How to Prevent Mother to Child Transmission of HIV

If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about getting tested for HIV as early as possible. If you have HIV, you’ll need to take antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and childbirth. These medications work by preventing the growth of HIV virus in the mother’s body. Thus, reducing the risk of a baby becoming infected with HIV.

If you are treated for HIV early in your pregnancy, the risk of transmitting HIV to your baby can be 1% or less.

If you are HIV-negative but you have an HIV-positive partner, talk to your doctor about taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help keep you from getting HIV. Encourage your partner to take ART to treat HIV, which greatly reduces the chance that he could transmit HIV to you.

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