Human-Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a blood borne pathogen, an infection that lives in blood.

Once in the body, the virus infects and compromises the immune system. It infects certain white blood cells called CD4 cells, and uses the body’s natural method of cell replication to mass produce itself. It then destroys the cell as it exits to infect many more cells.

This process multiplies the disease, and destroys the immune system along the way. As the virus is hidden within the body’s defense system, the body has no way of fighting and eradicating the infection.

This also leaves the body defenseless against other infections, known as opportunistic diseases, which take advantage of the body’s weakened state.

Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the most advanced stage of an untreated HIV infection. It can take up to ten years to reach this stage, during which time the body’s white blood cell count diminishes and the viral load increases. Once a HIV positive person has a CD4 (white blood cell) count less than 250 per blood sample, the person is considered to have AIDS.

Usually at this point, the virus will also be combined with one or more opportunistic diseases. No one dies of HIV or AIDS, but rather of AIDS-related illnesses.

HIV is transmitted through five bodily fluids.

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal Fluid
  • Anal Fluid
  • Breast Milk

For HIV contraction to occur, one of these fluids from an HIV positive person must come in contact with either an open wound, or a soft, absorbing tissue, usually of the vagina or anus. Though technically possible, HIV rarely (if ever) occurs through the mouth or digestive system.

The most common methods of transmission are the sharing of needles for intravenous drug usage, and unprotected vaginal/anal sex.

Some other less common ways are:

  • Mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
  • Occupational exposure, such as an accidental needle poke during a medical examination.
  • Fights or biting, when there is blood present.
  • Blood transfusions
  • Tattoos

HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, or tears.

In about 60-90% of people who contract HIV, flu-like symptoms can occur 2-4 weeks after infection. This is the body’s initial response to a foreign invader. These can include fever, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and mouth ulcers. The flu-like symptoms can last a few days to a few weeks.

After this, the virus hides itself within the white blood cells, and most people do not experience any symptoms for a long time. This is known as the incubation period, as the virus is multiplying itself within the body. The incubation period can be up to 10 years long.

Once the immune system is compromised to the point that opportunistic diseases can infect the body, symptoms will depend on the disease contracted.

Depending on the infection, HIV can spread throughout the body at different speeds. Generally, it takes about 72 hours for a person to become infected after contact. Then it can take anywhere between 5-10 years for it to allow for opportunistic diseases. Everything depends on how healthy a person is, and how strong their immune system is.

HIV is incurable, but we do have a very effective way of treating the virus. Antiretroviral Therapy, otherwise known as ART, is a combination of medications that prevent HIV from replicating itself within the body. The different drugs each fight the replication process in different ways, ensuring that they work effectively. Unfortunately the drugs cannot completely eradicate the virus, but it can lower the viral load till a person has reached “undetectable levels”.

When a person is “undetectable”, or when their viral load is less than 50 copies per blood sample, the chance of transmitting the virus is incredibly low, basically zero. A person reaches undetectable status when they maintain their course of ART regularly and consistently.

A recent study in Europe has been performed on over 1,100 couples. One partner was HIV positive, and was undetectable on ART. The other partner was negative, and on no treatments. Over the course of a few years, none of the negative partners contracted the disease despite having penetrative sex at least 58,000 distinct times without condoms. Because of this study, there is a 95% chance undetectable individuals cannot transmit the virus. However, the data suggests that although the confidence level is only at 95%, the true results are closer to 100%.

The origin of the virus is hard to trace, but we do know that HIV originated from chimpanzees, who can carry the virus without negative side effects. It was passed to humans in Africa, sometime in the early 1920’s. There is evidence to show earlier origins of the virus, but it was in 1959 that the earliest sample was confirmed from a chimpanzee.

The virus then spread to Haiti in the 1960’s, and from there it spread to three major cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1981. The virus first caught the attention of the medical community when it starting affecting young gay men in the early 80’s.

Though it wasn’t until 1981 that the virus was noticed, many people were probably infected throughout the 70’s, as HIV can take up to 10 years to demonstrate any symptoms.

Because the virus seemed to only be affecting gay men, the virus was originally called Gay Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. Despite being renamed AIDS a few months later, the idea that it was a gay-related disease remained the popular thought throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

HIV can infect anyone. HIV does not depend on age, sex, orientation or race (ethnic origin).

The easiest ways to protect against the virus is to use a condom when having any form of sex, and using clean, sanitary products for intravenous drug use. Also staying updated with your STI testing is important to catch any STI during their earlier stages to make treatment options more effective. Another form of protection is knowledge. Staying informed will help fight stigma and get the conversation going with friends and family.

For more information about testing services within Lethbridge, or where to find free safe sex supplies, click here.

Another option of HIV prevention is a medication called PrEP. It is a combination of two medications that are used for ART. Remaining on a regular course of PrEP can lower an individual’s risk by 86%.

Find out more information about PrEP and how to access it in Lethbridge.

There are many myths regarding HIV. Here are some of the most common,

HIV is not contracted casually- Casual contact includes things like:

  • talking, shaking hands, working or eating with someone who has HIV
  • hugs or kisses
  • coughs or sneezes
  • swimming pools
  • toilet seats or water fountains
  • bed sheets or towels
  • forks, spoons, cups or food
  • insects or animals (including mosquitoes)

You cannot contract AIDS. AIDS is the final stage of an untreated HIV infection, and does not occur for 5-10 years after infection.

Becoming HIV positive is not a death sentence. Today, HIV can be managed and monitored. The virus is comparable to the care for diabetes.