AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus attacks and destroys white blood cells, which are the body's first line of defense, leaving the individual vulnerable to a variety of illnesses and cancers.
A person who tests positive (i.e., seropositive) for HIV can transmit the virus, but can also be symptom-free. It can take up to 10 years or more between the time of infection by HIV and the appearance of full-blown AIDS.
HIV develops slowly, first attacking the body's immune system as it progresses through various stages that are often symptom-free. In the weeks following exposure to the virus, some individuals may experience flu-like symptoms. These symptoms usually disappear on their own within a week to a month. Some of those symptoms include:
- muscle and/or joint pain;
- sore throat;
- skin rash.
As HIV continues to spread through the body, there are no symptoms. Some individuals may be symptom-free for several years during this stage. In fact, treatments are aimed at extending this stage for as long as possible.
After several years, the body begins to show signs of weakening:
- persistent diarrhea.
- swollen nodes in the neck, armpits, and/or groin;
- shortness of breath
- extreme and persisting fatigue;
- skin infections;
- unexplained and significant weight loss;
- nocturnal sweats;
Other infections, such as herpes and various fungal infections, can also occur as the immune system gradually becomes weaker. That is when HIV reaches the AIDS stage. In time, the immune system becomes so weak that the person may succumb to pneumonia, say, or cancer (or both). Thus, an HIV infection is not lethal by itself. Rather, it is the serious illnesses that the individual catches that are life threatening.
Who can get HIV?
HIV does not discriminate! Men, women, children, and infants can all catch it and thus become vulnerable to the many infections and illnesses that make up AIDS.
HIV can be spread by blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. It is mainly transmitted through unprotected sexual contact with an infected partner during anal or vaginal penetration or during oral sex. HIV can also be transmitted by contact with contaminated blood, such as occurs during the sharing of contaminated needles or syringes. In addition, infected women can transmit the virus to their infants during pregnancy, delivery, or breast-feeding.
In Canada, all blood donations have been subjected to testing since 1985. There is still, unfortunately, a tiny risk of getting the infection through a blood transfusion because HIV can only be detected in the blood 3 months after the infection has occurred. On the other hand, people cannot get HIV from donating blood; all material used in the blood donor process is sterile and disposable (used a single time).
HIV is a very fragile virus; it cannot exist long outside the human body and it cannot survive in the air, in water, in soil, or on objects. In addition, HIV is easily destroyed by common household disinfectants. It does not spread during social contacts and daily activities; you cannot catch HIV by touching infected people, working with them, or eating foods they've handled. And mosquitoes cannot spread the virus either.
Your risk of being infected with HIV depends not on who you are but rather on what you do. High-risk behaviours include the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes, and having anal, vaginal, or oral relations with a potentially infected partner. Of course, your risk is even higher if you engage frequently in such behaviours.
Avoid sexual contact with occasional partners. Unless you are absolutely sure that neither you nor your partner is infected with HIV, always use a lubricated latex or polyurethane condom with spermicide.
If you travel to a non-industrialized country, refuse all blood transfusions, unless it's a life-or-death situation. If you need an injection, demand that it be made with your own needles and syringe or that the material they use has never been used before (i.e. straight out of the package).
If you think that you have been in contact with HIV, seek medical advice immediately and be tested (ELISA test). Early detection is the key to controlling the effects of the virus and preserving the immune system in good health as long as possible. Delaying the evolution of the disease and the appearance of opportunistic infections (serious infections that take advantage of a weakened immune system) will improve quality of life.
In Canada, there are more than 55,000 people living with HIV. Despite research efforts, no cure or vaccine has been developed yet. Treatments are costly and constantly changing because the virus itself mutates and creates new strains. Prevention remains essential.
For more information or for support :
Canadian AIDS Society
Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange