What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
HIV infects and gradually destroys an infected person’s immune system, reducing their protection against infection and cancers. You need to have been infected with HIV to develop AIDS.
Without HIV treatment and care, people with HIV will experience damage to their immune system and will develop AIDS-defining illnesses at some point in the future.
AIDS stands for ‘acquired immune deficiency syndrome’. It means a collection of illnesses (‘syndrome’) caused by a virus people pick up (‘acquire’) that makes their immune system get weak (‘immune deficiency’). You cannot get an AIDS diagnosis unless you are already HIV positive.
Initially, someone living with HIV may show no symptoms of HIV infection as their immune system manages to control it. However, in most cases their immune system will need help from anti-HIV drugs to keep the HIV infection under control. These drugs do not completely rid the body of HIV infection.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV is not passed on easily from one person to another, especially compared to other viruses. That’s because HIV is present in body fluids (e.g. semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk, blood). So for HIV to be passed on, the body fluids of someone who is already infected have to get into an uninfected person’s body and then into their bloodstream.
Other body fluids, like saliva, sweat or urine, do not contain enough of the virus to infect another person.
The main ways that HIV can be transmitted are:
- through sexual intercourse and other sexual activities
- from mother to baby
- from blood to blood
- sharing injecting equipment
It starts with me… click here to watch the video. If we all test, we can help stop HIV.
Instant HIV testing is available in all bSHaW’s community clinics throughout Buckinghamshire. Find out where you can get tested by using our service finder tool and selecting ‘HIV Services’ in the choose a service drop-down.
What is an HIV test?
You can find out if you have become infected with HIV by having a blood test done. The test doesn’t look for the virus itself but for antibodies to the virus. Antibodies are made in your blood when an infection has got into your body.
When should I get an HIV test?
In Buckinghamshire our sexual health clinics use what is know as 4th generation tests, which are accurate 11 days to 4 weeks after exposure. This is when the p24 antigen (a protein found within the HIV virus) becomes high enough to measure. Everyone makes antibodies at slightly different rates, so to make sure the tests are accurate they recommend that you should get the tests done at 28 days, although it’s best to link yourself into services as soon as you think you may have put yourself at risk. A negative result at 28 days is good news but it is not conclusive. UK guidelines (BASHH) say that an early negative result at 28 days needs to be confirmed with a second test 84 days (12 weeks) after the exposure.
Condoms are the best way of stopping HIV. However, there’s a thing called PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis), which can stop a person becoming infected after HIV has entered their body:
PEP is an emergency measure to be used as a last resort, e.g., if a condom breaks or you have a ‘slip up’ from your usual safer sex routine or you think you may have been exposed to HIV by used injecting equipment i.e. needle stick. PEP is a combination of powerful drugs and can be hard to get hold of, so it is no substitute for condoms, but it’s important to know about in case one day you or someone you’ve had sex with needs it.
PEP is not guaranteed to always work but has a high success rate. It is free of charge but can only be prescribed by doctors and if certain criteria are met. Sexual health and HIV clinics can provide it, as can Accident & Emergency departments of hospitals. Regular family doctors (GPs) don’t give PEP.
PEP is a month long course of HIV drugs that someone takes very soon after sex which had a risk of HIV transmission.
The drugs are the same ones taken by people with HIV, and for PEP to work they must be taken for four weeks. The sooner PEP is started, the more likely it is to work; within 24 hours is best, but no later than 72 hours (three days). After 72 hours PEP is unlikely to work.
PEP is not a ‘morning after’ pill to stop HIV, as it is not taken just once but must be taken every day for 28 days. If someone stops taking it before 28 days there is a possibility that it will not have worked.
Where can I get PEP?
PEP is available from bSHaW Specialist Sexual Health Clinics. However, please be aware that all Clinics are closed on Bank Holidays, therefore in case of an emergency:
If somebody needs PEP when the clinics are closed people should go to A&E at Stoke Mandeville Hospital for sexual exposure and for occupational exposure eg a policeman gets a needle stick injury then MIU or A&E.
Support for people living with HIV
Adult Social Care Services
Adult Social Care services in Buckinghamshire are committed to helping people living with HIV/AIDS to live as independently as possible. They provide useful resources and information, to combat exclusion and to promote positive and healthy lifestyles.
National AIDS Trust – http://www.nat.org.uk – 0207 814 6767
Sexual Health Line – 0800 567 123 also offers advice in some other languages on request.
African AIDS Helpline – 0800 0967500