The Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a retrovirus that, if left untreated, can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The virus reduces the number of CD4 cells that the body relies on to fight infection, and early symptoms can be similar to that of a particularly bad cold or flu. If the virus is not diagnosed and treated properly, the person’s immune system begins to fail, leading to potentially fatal infections that the body would ordinarily be able to combat naturally.
HIV can be transmitted in a number of different ways, including the transfer of bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate and breast milk. The virus can be spread by sexual contact with someone who has the infection, by sharing needles or syringes with an infected person, or, rarely, through transfusions of infected blood. HIV cannot be passed on through urine, tears, sweat, saliva or faeces.
Early detection can prove vital in controlling HIV, with testing the only way to be certain of your HIV status. So, stay safe and get yourself tested. When it comes to HIV, it is always Better2Know.
The chances of contracting the virus sexually increase if there is any blood present, such as during a woman's period, or if one or more partner has another STI. With unprotected vaginal sex, the virus can be caught through a break or tear in the lining of the cervix, womb or uterus in a woman, or cuts or sores on a man’s penis, urethra, or the inside of his foreskin.
Anal sex is slightly riskier, as the membrane of the anus is thinner and more delicate than the vagina, leaving the area more prone to tearing. For both vaginal and anal sex, the receptive partner is at a higher risk than the giving partner.
Oral sex, meanwhile, is considered a lower risk sexual activity in terms of HIV. This is because the lining of the mouth is tougher than the vagina or anus, while saliva contains enzymes which break down the virus. HIV can still be transmitted if infected blood from the mouth encounters any genital sores, or if sexual fluids come into contact with cuts or ulcers in the mouth.
Sharing needles – often for recreational drug use – is an extremely high-risk activity for many blood borne diseases. Needles are an effective avenue for infected blood to enter another person’s blood stream.
In countries where blood supplies are not routinely screened, blood transfusions pose an elevated risk for contracting HIV. However, in developed countries like Australia, this in an extremely rare mode of transmission. Likewise, there is a chance of catching the virus if unsterilized tattoo equipment has been used on someone with HIV.
Mothers can transmit HIV to their newborns either during pregnancy, delivery or through breastfeeding. There is medication which can reduce the risk of transmission if a mother knows her status early enough in the pregnancy. Healthcare workers are also at risk of infection, particularly those who regularly come into contact with infected blood, though the number of documented cases is very small.