One-to-one HIV Support
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What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is the virus that causes people to develop AIDS. HIV damages the body’s immune system, making that person vulnerable to certain infections. The virus attacks a specific immune cell called the CD4 cell, a cell that is responsible for some of the body’s immune response to illnesses. Having HIV does not mean that you have AIDS. It may take several years for HIV to damage the immune system so much that a person becomes unwell. During that time a person with HIV can be well and live with the virus for many years without developing AIDS.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a collection of infections and cancers that people with HIV can develop. When the HIV virus has weakened a person’s immune system to point of developing these illnesses, they are said to have AIDS. It can also be said that when a person has a CD4 count of lower than 200, they have AIDS although with the advances in treatment the term is not used as much today in developed countries. Many of the organisms that cause these illnesses are quite common and relatively harmless to a person with a healthy immune system. However, in someone whose immune system is badly damaged, they can cause severe illness and death.
How Does a Person Become Infected With HIV?
The HIV virus is only present in certain bodily fluids and so can only be passed on in certain ways. These fluids are:
HIV can only be transmitted if HIV infected fluids enter the blood of an uninfected person.
The four main ways HIV can be passed on are…
Having vaginal or anal sex without a condom with someone who has HIV
Through sharing of drug-injecting equipment that is contaminated with infected blood
From a woman with HIV to her baby at birth or through breastfeeding
By injection or transfusion of blood from an infected person
You cannot get HIV through daily social contact such as…
Social kissing, touching, hugging, shaking hands
Sharing a swimming pool, toilet facilities, crockery, cutlery or eating food prepared by someone with HIV
Coughs, sneezing, tears, insect or animal bites
What About Sex?
You can be infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections if you have vaginal or anal sex without a condom with someone who has an infection. If you are having sex, using a condom provides an effective barrier against HIV. Condoms also protect against other sexually transmitted infections as well as unintended pregnancies.
What About Drugs?
You can be infected with HIV and other blood borne viruses such as Hepatitis C if you inject drugs and share needles with others. If you are injecting drugs, use a new needle and syringe each time and do not share any injecting equipment.
What About Having a Baby?
If you are pregnant and have HIV, appropriate care before, during and after birth can reduce the risks of HIV transmission to your baby from 20 per cent to as little as one per cent. The risks of transmission can be reduced by:
Have treatment with the anti-HIV drugs during pregnancy
Have an elective Caesarean birth
Choose to bottle-feed your baby if possible as there is an estimated 10 per cent risk that HIV can be passed on through breastfeeding
Advances in treatment have meant that HIV positive women have been able to give birth naturally to their child and not pass on HIV.
What About Giving and Receiving Blood?
Donating blood in the UK is safe. All equipment is sterile and used once. All blood products, organs and tissue for transplant are screened for HIV antibodies. Blood products are also heat-treated to destroy HIV. As a result, the current risk of becoming infected with HIV from a blood transfusion in the UK is negligible.
What is an HIV Test?
HIV is usually diagnosed by a blood test, known as an HIV antibody test or an HIV test. This test looks for antibodies formed by the immune system if HIV is present. When a person becomes infected with HIV it can take up to three months for the immune system to produce enough antibodies to show up in a test. This is called the window period or seroconversion and as the virus is replicating very quickly during this period, it is also the period when the individual is highly infectious.
If antibodies are found, the test result is referred to as positive. This means that a person is HIV-positive. If antibodies are not found, the test result is referred to as negative. This means that a person is HIV-negative, as long as the test was done after the end of the three-month window period. If you are thinking about having a HIV test, you can contact BRO-SIS who will tell you what is involved and where the best place is to go for a test.
Can HIV be Treated?
Anti-HIV therapy is treatment with drugs that interfere with the way the virus tries to reproduce itself inside the human immune cell and successful use of drugs can lead to the virus being undetectable in the blood of the infected person. However, these drugs do not cure HIV as they can not penetrate certain areas (such as the brain and glands) so if the person stops taking the medication, the HIV virus will return in their blood.
Anti-HIV drugs are usually prescribed in combinations of two, three or more. This is called combination therapy or Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART). Since its introduction in 1996, HAART has been proved effective in controlling HIV and delaying the onset of AIDS for many people, but not everyone.
Treatments have helped many people but they do have side effects, which can sometimes be severe. This can make treatments difficult to take, and there can be complex treatment regimes which people have to follow. As people are living longer with HIV therapy, longer term side effects are also becoming apparent including increased risk of heart attacks and other serious health issues. These difficulties in taking tablets mean that treatments can fail.
Treatments fail when HIV becomes resistant to the medication being taken. This can happen if the HIV infected person has missed taking their medication and so when the HIV virus mutates during replication, it responds to the reducing amount of anti-retrovirals and becomes resistant. When one combination has failed another combination of drugs has to be taken but the more times treatments fail the harder it is to get a combination that works.
At present there is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection and there is still no cure for HIV. Once you have been infected with HIV you will have it for the rest of your life. Experimental vaccines are being researched but there is no indication of there being an effective vaccine available in the near future.
You can get further information on HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases by visiting our links page.
What Do I Say or Do if Someone I Know has HIV?
Someone with HIV is just like everybody else and should be entitled to privacy and respect. The last thing someone with HIV needs is to have to deal with other people’s fears and prejudices. One of the biggest barriers for people living with HIV is the stigma and discrimination from other people. Remember, you are at no risk of infection from someone with HIV through everyday social contact. Don’t break up a friendship because someone you know has HIV.
Friendship and support are two of the most important things you can offer.
So you’ve recently met someone you like, and would like to take the relationship to the next level. However, there is always that question as to when would be the right time to discuss your HIV positive status. It is understandable that you might be hesitant about disclosing this information, but it’s always better to get those big skeletons out of the closet as soon as possible.
Get to know that person first and allow them to get to know you. Obviously you are not just defined by the fact that you are positive. So by getting to know that person a little first should allow them to look past this and see you for who you are. It is suggested that you do not sleep with this person until you have disclosed your status. If this is the case then the person may feel betrayed, which may hinder your chances of taking the relationship further.
There is no right time to inform someone that you are HIV positive. However, getting to know them should give you an inclination of their likely response. However, if you want to take things further then sit them down and spill the beans. Inform them that you care enough for them to share this information. If that person is worth while having in your life then they will understand. Many straight, gay and bisexual men and women have successful positive/negative relationships.
When the time is right, discuss safer sex. Also, let them in on how you are caring for yourself and what you expect from them.
Of course, you run the risk of losing that person, but realize that it’s their lack of understanding and fear NOT your status. Some people just aren’t mentally ready to date a HIV positive person, while others are unaware of the possibilities of a long-term and loving relationship with a HIV partner. Whichever way you look at it, it is a matter of education and maturity, not a deficiency on your part.
Remember, HIV status doesn’t define who you are! Be honest, be open. The right person for you will stick by your side no matter what!
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