HIV 101

HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. If you have been told you are HIV positive, it means that your body has come into contact with HIV and you are living with HIV.

Who is at risk of HIV?

Anyone from any age, sex, ethnic group, religion, economic background, or sexual orientation can contract HIV. HIV is passed between people through body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk.

Anyone who is sexually active, or shares needles, or has an accidental needlestick injury (usually health workers) can be at risk for HIV. A mother living with HIV can also pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or by breast feeding.

How does HIV affect a person’s health?

HIV gets into the cells in our immune system known as CD4 cells (T4 cells), a type of white blood cell that makes up a major part of your immune system and damages these CD4 cells. HIV also uses these cells to make copies of itself (replicates). Over time, when the CD4 cells are damaged enough, your immune system becomes weakened and it becomes harder for your body to fight off infection.

If you have lived with HIV for a while without any treatment for HIV, your immune system can become severely damaged. When your immune system can no longer protect your body it is vulnerable to other infections and diseases, and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) develops. These infections and diseases are called ‘opportunistic’ infections. Many opportunistic infections are treatable or preventable.

How to tell if someone is living with HIV

It is impossible to tell if someone is living with HIV by looking at them. People can live with HIV for many years and not know they are living with it. If someone is living with HIV, they can pass on HIV to other people without knowing it.

The only way to know whether you are living with HIV or not, is to have a blood test. This will let you know your HIV status – positive or negative.

How to live healthy with HIV

Today there are powerful HIV medications to fight HIV. These medications do two things. Some stop HIV from getting inside your white blood cells (CD4 cells) and they also work to stop HIV from replicating (making copies) of itself. These HIV medications are called anti-retrovirals. “Anti” means against, and “retroviral” means the virus. Sometimes you’ll see HIV medication also called anti-retroviral treatment or ART.

Taking HIV anti-retroviral treatment (ART) stops or suppresses the HIV virus from making copies of the virus in your body. This reduces the amount of HIV in your blood. When HIV is low in your body, your immune system can function normally.

With HIV medication, the HIV virus is controlled and suppressed. However, if your medication is missed, or not taken correctly as prescribed by your doctor, HIV can become resistant to the medication. It’s very important that HIV medication is taken on time as prescribed, to give your immune system the best chance of keeping you healthy long term.

Today people living with HIV who are on HIV medication can expect to live a full, active life, and have a normal healthy lifespan like someone else who does not have HIV.

Further reading

The following links provide more detailed information about HIV from medically authoritative websites.

South Australia Health – HIV

Australian Department of Health – HIV

Heathdirect Australia – HIV