HIV for beginners
Whether you’ve never received any information, or think you know it all, here’s an opportunity to remind yourself of the basics…
What is HIV?
HIV stands for ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus’. It is a virus which attacks the immune system. A person infected with HIV may not show any signs of being ill for as long as ten years, but during this time the virus can wreak havoc on the immune system. HIV treatment halts this process and helps a person with HIV stay healthy; but without treatment, a person may develop illnesses – eventually leading to an AIDS diagnosis (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
A person can still be treated for AIDS and become healthy again with the right medical help, but for some it may be fatal.
AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s. No effective treatment for HIV was introduced until the mid-1990s. Up until that time, the prognosis for anyone diagnosed with HIV was bleak, but since the mid-90s, and the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy, the prognosis for anyone with HIV is better. A person diagnosed early is expected to live a and a near-normal lifespan but the longer undiagnosed, the more damage HIV can do.
Are there any signs of being infected with HIV?
When a person is infected with HIV, a process called ‘seroconversion’ takes place around 1-2 weeks after infection (which is the virus taking hold of the body and the body reacting). During this time, 70-90% of people experience severe flu-like symptoms that usually include a sore throat, fever and rash on the chest. They may also experience nausea, fatigue, headache and diarrhoea. If you experience these symptoms, and have recently had unprotected sex, you should have an HIV test as soon as possible. These symptoms will then go away after a week or so, and a person may then have no visible signs of having HIV until they become seriously ill.
How is HIV passed on?
HIV is transmitted through the exchange of body fluids with someone who is already infected. The virus is fragile and cannot survive outside the body for long. The most common route of transmission is sexual. For gay men, anal sex without a condom poses the greatest risk. HIV can be passed from the active to passive partner (the guy getting fucked) or from the passive to active partner (the guy doing the fucking), which is why it’s always important to wear a condom. HIV can also be transmitted through vaginal sex, or through any activity where blood may be exchanged, such as the sharing of hypodermic needles by drug users.
Can you get HIV through giving or receiving oral sex?
HIV can be transmitted through oral sex but the risk is far less than transmission through anal sex. To minimise this risk further, it’s sensible not to give oral sex if you or your partner has any cuts or sores in your mouth, or bleeding gums. It’s also considered safer if someone doesn’t cum in your mouth.
How risky is it to have sex with an HIV-positive person?
If a person is diagnosed with HIV and is receiving treatment, the level of virus in their body will be greatly reduced (clinically referred to as an ‘undetectable viral load’); this means the risk of passing on HIV to another person is low. However, HIV treatment should not necessarily be viewed as a replacement for condoms and there are a range of factors to consider. A person with HIV can discuss these with their doctor to gain more information.
If a person has HIV but doesn’t know their status, the level of HIV in their body is likely to be very high, particularly if they are recently infected, as the level of HIV virus in the body peaks and there is a high risk of passing HIV on to a sexual partner if a condom is not used.
What if I only have sex with guys who say they’re HIV negative?
This is a nice idea in theory but in practice it doesn’t work as 25% of people with HIV in the UK don’t know they have it. A person may think they’re HIV negative, but this doesn’t mean it’s actually the case. It’s always best to use a condom during sex.
Can you get HIV by kissing?
HIV cannot be passed on from holding hands, hugging, drinking from someone else’s cup or bottle, or from someone sneezing, coughing, spitting or scratching you. Kissing, mutual masturbation and other non-penetrative sexual practices are regarded as safe – just be careful not to allow ejaculate/semen near open wounds or bleeding sores. Being infected with one sexually-transmitted disease (gonorrhoea, syphilis, etc) can make infection easier, which is why it’s recommended all gay men have a regular sexual health check-up, whether they have symptoms or not.
Now that there is treatment, does it matter if you become infected with HIV?
It’s far better for your health to remain HIV-negative (i.e. not infected with the virus). Being HIV-positive means that you will, at some stage, need to begin treatment that you will be on for the rest of your life. Treatment often has side effects, some long-term, and taking daily medication and going for regular check-ups can also be demoralising. It’s been found that some taking treatment for many years may be more prone to developing age-onset illnesses such as heart disease earlier than expected. There also, sadly, remains a stigma around HIV-positive people who can experience discrimination or rejection because of their status, leading to depression.
Why can’t I just wait until I fall ill to get tested for HIV?
Putting off an HIV test until you fall ill with an HIV-related illness is one of the worst things you can do! Despite treatment, people with HIV can still die, and the majority who do in the UK are the ones who don’t know that they are HIV-positive. By the time they find out, it’s too late for effective treatment. Those who find out that they are HIV-positive within a few months of infection, and have regular check-ups, have the best chance of leading a long, illness-free life. Someone diagnosed with HIV today at 35, and treated early, has a life expectancy of over 72. It is important to know your HIV status to prevent passing the infection on. Most new infections are passed on by people who don’t know they have HIV. Modern HIV tests are quick and easy, returning results within minutes.
How often should I be testing for HIV?
It is advisable for gay men to have an HIV test at least once a year, and more often if you’ve put yourself at risk.
How common is HIV?
At the time of going to press (April 2012), more than 90,000 people in the UK have HIV – three times as many as ten years ago. The number is expected to top 100,000 this year.
Isn’t it a myth that mostly gay men are affected by HIV?
No – sadly not. In the general population HIV affects roughly one in 900 people, but in the gay community it’s 1 in 20. In London around one in 10 gay men are HIV-positive, and one in eight in Brighton. Around a quarter of gay men with HIV do not know they have it.
How can I find out more?
Book an appointment at a sexual health clinic and speak to a nurse, doctor or advisor. Alternatively, you can call the Terrence Higgins Trust Helpline on 0808 802 1221 (free to callers from UK landlines and most mobile networks and won’t appear on phone bills).
You can also find out more information at the following websites:
Posted: 1 May 2012