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HIV

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. 

blue textureThe immune system is made up of cells that protect and defend our bodies from germs and infections.

HIV attacks the CD4 cells in the immune system. These CD4 cells are vital for the body’s immune system to fight off infection. If a person is infected with HIV, the CD4 cells are attacked and killed off which makes the body less able to fight off infection and illness.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a stage of the HIV infection. AIDS is a medical diagnosis used to describe the stage when a HIV positive person’s immune system is so weak it cannot fight off infections and diseases.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

  • HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system
  • A person must have HIV before they can develop AIDS
  • Medication can prevent HIV developing into AIDS
  • Being HIV positive does not mean you have AIDS.

Is there a cure for HIV?

There is currently not cure for HIV, but effective treatment is available. If someone is diagnosed with HIV they can control its effects with medication and by looking after their health, but there’s no cure.

A person living with HIV can now live a normal life span.

How is HIV transmitted?

To catch HIV, the virus has to enter the bloodstream. This can only happen by sharing one of four kinds of fluid with a person that has the HIV virus:

  • blood
  • semen
  • vaginal fluid
  • breast milk.

HIV can be transmitted through:

  • unprotected sex: vaginal, anal and oral
  • blood to blood contact (eg sharing contaminated needles, blood transfusions in countries where blood isn’t screened)
  • Mother to baby: during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, kissing, or by shaking hands, or by sharing food or toilet seats.

How do I know if I have HIV?

A person can be living with HIV for a number of years and not show any symptoms. The only way to know if you have been infected with HIV is to get tested.

A HIV test is a blood test that is looking for HIV antibodies in the bloodstream. Antibodies are substances the body produces to fight off infection. If there are HIV antibodies in the bloodstream then a person has been infected with HIV.

If you are sexually active, make sure to have regular health check-ups, which include testing for HIV and other STIs.

It’s not possible to tell by looking at a person if they are HIV positive or if they have another STI.

What happens during a HIV test?

Usually a doctor or nurse will take a person’s sexual history, and then will have a series of tests (for HIV and other STIs). The test takes a couple of minutes. An advisor will usually talk to a person having an HIV test, and counselling may also be available.

Results for blood tests can take between one to four weeks. Depending on the range of tests received, some results may be available while at the clinic. Find the nearest free testing clinic.

People can also avail of HIV and STI testing (for a fee) from GPs, Family Planning Clinics, GP Medical Centres, and in some third level colleges. The costs for this will vary.

How to prevent HIV transmission

To reduce the risk of HIV infection make sure to:

  • use condoms consistently, for vaginal or anal sex
  • use condoms or dental dams correctly for oral sex
  • if using drugs, do not share needles or other drug equipment
  • make informed decisions. Talk to your partner(s) about HIV and getting tested
  • if you are sexually active get tested regularly, while also using condoms correctly.

What do I do if I have had a possible exposure to HIV?

If you recently (within the last 72 hours) were involved in a situation where HIV could have entered your bloodstream, you can go to an A&E or STI Clinic and ask for PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis). PEP involves taking anti-HIV medications as soon as possible (within 72 hours) after a potential exposure to try to reduce the chance of becoming HIV positive.

Not everyone who wants HIV PEP will receive it. A doctor at the hospital will assess the risk and decide if the treatment is needed.

My test was positive. What now?

A person may find that a lot of supports are available from the hospital’s HIV Clinic. Clinics have social workers who can support you and can assist with social, practical, or emotional difficulties surrounding your HIV status. They provide a safe, confidential and supportive service to discuss any issues which may be arising from your diagnosis.

Support is available from agencies such as HIV Ireland or the HIV helpline 1800 459 459.

A person living with HIV may be required to attend the hospital every three to six months for a check-up. Check-ups usually involve a blood test to monitor the CD4 count, (the number of CD4 cells in the blood), and to monitor the Viral Load (the amount of HIV in the blood).

Treatment for HIV

HIV medication is called HAART (Highly Active Anti- Retroviral Therapy). HAART is a combination of medicines that aim to stop the virus replicating in the body and allow the immune system to recover.

If a person is on HIV medication, if it is really important they follow the treatment schedule as HIV can become resistant to the medication if it is not taken properly. As with all medication, HAART has side effects, some of which can be severe. HIV can still be passed on while a person is on treatment.

Not everyone living with HIV will be placed on medical treatment immediately. Medical guidance and advice is provided to assist with decisions about when to start treatment. This guidance is generally based on the blood tests measuring CD4 cell count and viral load.

In Ireland at present, it is not obligatory to disclose your HIV status to another professional person (whether an employer, social worker or medical personnel). Neither is it obligatory to disclose to sexual partners.

If I go to a clinic to be tested, will they tell my parents?

No. According to law you can request and receive medical care for yourself once you’re 16 years-old.

At the sexual health clinic, the information you give the staff is completely confidential. It can’t be shared with your parents or people you know, unless the law requires it.

An example of this would be if health staff thought you were at risk of serious harm.

In this case, the clinic is required to report this to the duty social worker in the Health Service Executive (HSE). Another example might be if your files were required in a court case.

Doctors are sometimes required to report the number of cases of HIV they diagnose to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre so they can monitor the disease in Ireland.

Your details will not be used. They don’t need to know who you are, they just need to keep track of how many people are getting the infection.

For more information visit HIV Ireland. See the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre for a detailed article on HIV/AIDS.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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