What is HIV?
HIV is a virus. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus uses immune cells, called CD4 or T cells, to make copies of itself. This replication process can destroy the immune cells. When too many cells are destroyed, the body can’t fight infections and diseases, which can lead to AIDS.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS refers to a combination of serious infections or diseases. Over time, untreated HIV can cause AIDS to develop.
In Australia, AIDS is rare. However, if you don’t find out that you have HIV or if you remain untreated for a long time (usually 8-10 years), you may be diagnosed with AIDS. Some of the AIDS illness may be reversed with treatment.
How is HIV treated?
There is no cure for HIV. However, good medications are available to prevent the virus growing. Treatment is usually one or two pills a day, is well tolerated, and strengthens the immune system by keeping the virus at such low levels in the blood it is considered undetectable.
When HIV is undetectable, it is still there but it doesn’t damage the body as much. Studies have shown that when a person has undetectable HIV, known as undetectable viral load, HIV is not transmitted to sexual partners, even without condoms. *However the law still states you must disclose your HIV status to partners, or use a condom.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV lives in body fluids, like blood, genital fluids and breast milk. When a person is not on HIV treatment, HIV can move from one person to another:
- During vaginal or anal sex without a condom
- During pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding
- When sharing needles (using unsterile injecting equipment)
- When donated blood is not screened for HIV. Australia’s donated blood supply is very safe because it is screened
How is HIV not transmitted?
You cannot get HIV from sharing food, kissing and hugging, mosquito bites or from using the same swimming pools, showers or toilets as someone with HIV.
HIV cannot survive for very long outside of the body. If infected fluid has been exposed to the air for a while, it is unlikely that you could get HIV from it. For example, there are no known cases of people getting HIV from stepping on a used syringe or needle.
How can I prevent HIV infection?
Not everyone is aware that they have HIV, in fact people who have HIV and don’t know it are more likely to transmit HIV.
You can avoid passing on or contracting HIV by using condoms and lube whenever you have sex. If you have HIV make sure you are regularly monitored by your HIV doctor and take HIV treatment as prescribed.
Condoms are still recommended as the best protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. However, HIV treatment and maintaining a consistently undetectable viral load is proving to be just as effective as condoms at preventing the transmission of HIV.
Treatment reduces the amount of virus in your body to undetectable levels, meaning sex is safer. Undetectable doesn’t mean the HIV has completely gone away – but it is in such small quantities that it is extremely unlikely to be passed on to anyone else.
Many scientific studies have been done which show that no transmissions have taken place where the HIV positive partner has an undetectable viral load.
Always use new needles and syringes. In NSW there is a needle and syringe program (NSP) that provides sterile injecting equipment for free. Most pharmacies will swap used syringes for new ones or sell sterile equipment for a small fee. An Australia-wide directory of NSP services is available on the AIVL website.
Can I get HIV through oral sex?
Oral sex with an HIV positive woman (licking or sucking the vagina or vagina lips) is very safe in terms of HIV transmission. There have been no reliable reports of transmitting HIV this way. Likewise there is no risk of an HIV positive woman transmitting HIV by sucking a man’s penis. Dams and condoms, while not necessary to prevent HIV when having oral sex with a positive woman, can help prevent STIs such as herpes.
Oral sex with a positive man is low risk for HIV but can happen infrequently. AFAO (Aust. Federation of AIDS organisations) has more detailed information on oral sex with a HIV-positive man.
There are also many intimate and erotic activities that have no risk of transmitting HIV such as kissing, massage, mutual masturbation, rimming, using toys and fantasy play.
I think I’ve been exposed – what do I do?
If you think you have been exposed to HIV, you should ring the Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) Hotline on 1800 737 669 (1800 PEP NOW).
PEP is a special combination of HIV treatments that are given to people who may have been exposed to HIV. It can prevent seroconversion.
To be effective PEP must be started within 72 hours of exposure to HIV, and the sooner PEP is started, the more chance it has to work. More information is available here.
PEP is available at public Sexual Health Clinics or your Emergency Department.
**New PEP guidelines (2016) state that PEP is not recommended where the source has an undetectable viral load
Where can I be tested?
You can be tested for HIV by your GP or at any NSW Public Sexual Health Clinic. If you have any difficulty getting a HIV test ring Pozhet. You can also ring the NSW Sexual HealthInfo Line on 1800 451 624 to discuss whether you might have been at risk.