HIV and AIDS: What they are and how to avoid them

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST WAS WRITTEN IN 2008. SINCE THEN, MANY THINGS IN THIS FIELD HAVE CHANGED. WHILE THIS INFORMATION WAS RELIABLE AT THE TIME, IT MAY NO LONGER BE SO. IF YOU ARE SEARCHING FOR HEALTH INFORMATION ON HIV/AIDS IN PARTICULAR, PLEASE CONSULT A RELIABLE RESOURCE WRITTEN IN THE PAST YEAR OR TWO. THIS POST HAS BEEN PRESERVED AS A WRITING SAMPLE ONLY.

This December 1 marks the 20th World AIDS day. On this day, people from around the world come together to draw attention to this global pandemic and to encourage HIV and AIDS prevention. A primary focus for this day is to encourage progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in high prevalence countries and around the world.

What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a type of virus that attacks our immune system, causing it to function less well or not at all. In the early stages of infection (the first 5 to 10 years), there are often no obvious symptoms: many infected people do not know they are infected. However, as the virus continues to attack the immune system, the infected person starts to get sick. This is because all kinds of “opportunistic infections”, which their bodies would have normally fought off, attack their weakened immune system. (source)

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the final stage of HIV infection. It can take from 10 to 15 years for a person with an HIV infection to develop AIDS, and medication (called “antiretroviral therapy”) may slow down the process even longer.

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS.

Can I get HIV/AIDS?
Unfortunately, it is very easy to get infected with HIV. Because people may be infected for many years before they find out they are infected, they can unknowingly pass it on to loved ones. That is why it is important to get yourself and your sexual partners tested.

You can get HIV/AIDS from unprotected sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal), by receiving a transfusion of contaminated blood or by sharing contaminated needles. Mothers can also pass the infection on to their infants during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. (source)

To become infected, infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions must enter your body. You can not become infected through ordinary contact (such as hugging, kissing, dancing or shaking hands) with someone who is HIV positive or has AIDS. (source)

How can I avoid HIV/AIDS when I have sex?
The only way to avoid HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections completely is to abstain from sex altogether.

Good-quality male and female condoms are the only products currently available that protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. When used properly during every sexual intercourse, condoms are a proven means of preventing HIV infection in women and men. (source)

Remaining faithful in a relationship with an uninfected equally faithful partner with no other risk behaviour greatly reduces your chance of contracting HIV, as does practicing non-penetrative sex.

Should my partner and I get tested?
If you have had unprotected sex with even one previous sexual partner or have taken intravenous drugs, you are at risk. If you are infected, getting tested early may prolong your life for many years. You can also take precautions to avoid spreading the HIV infection to others.

Remember, it can take from 5 to 10 years for symptoms of an HIV infection to appear. You should get tested as part of your routine medical care if:  (source)

  • you are between the ages of 13 and 64
  • you are pregnant
  • you have had unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with more than one sexual partner or with an anonymous partner since your last screening
  • you are a man who has sex with men
  • you use IV drugs
  • you have been diagnosed with tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease (STD) such as hepatitis or syphilis
  • you have had unprotected sex with someone who falls into any of the categories described above

Can I be tested anonymously?
You can get tested for HIV anonymously at a number of clinics.

In Ontario, there are 50 anonymous testing sites across the province. Like all other types of HIV testing in Ontario, anonymous testing includes pre- and post-test counselling and referrals to other services and supports. (source)

Here are some places you can go for anonymous testing:

  • The Hassle Free Clinic (66 Gerrard Street, 2nd floor) in downtown Toronto provides free, anonymous testing.
  • The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) can also provide you with a list of anonymous test sites near you. Call them at 416-340-2437 or e-mail them at ask@actoronto.org.
  • Ontario residents can call the AIDS hotline to find out where a clinic is located. Toronto residents can call 416-392-2437, Ontarians in other parts of the province can call 1-800-668-2437.

How common is HIV/AIDS?
Last year, worldwide: (source)

  • 33.2 million people were living with HIV
  • 2.5 million people were newly infected with HIV
  • 2.1 million people died of AIDS

More than 95% of HIV infections are in developing countries, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa (map). Although infection rates are lower in Asia and the Pacific, experts fear that the growing number of cases could touch off a major epidemic in the world’s most populated countries. (source)

Yesterday, the World Health Organization published findings suggesting that if every person in the world went for voluntary HIV testing, followed by immediate antiretroviral therapy treatment (if required), it would reduce new HIV cases by 95% within 10 years. (source)

Although a lot of progress has been made against this disease in the 25 years since its discovery, it’s still killing far too many people. Today, only 28% of people who need antiretroviral therapy actually receive it.

Donna MacLeod, for Consumer Health Information Service at Toronto Public Library (read original post)
Further reading
AIDS Committee of Toronto

Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE) website

Ontario. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. HIV and AIDS: HIV Testing. (undated)

Health Canada. HIV and AIDS. (July 2007)

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). HIV reports and publications website (suveys, statistics and updates)

Mayo Clinic.

World Health Organization.

United Nations.