Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What is HIV ?
Ans. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. This virus is passed from one person to another through blood, using shared needles and sexual contact. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their baby during pregnancy or delivery, as well as through breast-feeding. People with HIV have what is called HIV infection. Most of these people develop AIDS as a result of HIV infection.
These body fluids have been proven to spread HIV:
- vaginal Fluid
- breast milk
- other body fluids containing blood
Other additional body fluids that may transmit the virus that healthcare workers may come into contact with are:
- cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord
- synovial fluid surrounding bone joints
- amniotic fluid surrounding a foetus
Q. What is AIDS ? What Causes AIDS ?
Ans. AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. An HIV-infected person receives a diagnosis of AIDS after developing one of the CDC-defined AIDS indicator illnesses. An HIV positive person who has not had any serious illnesses also can receive an AIDS diagnosis on the basis of certain blood tests (CD4+ counts).
A positive HIV test result does not mean that a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using certain clinical criteria (e.g. AIDS indicator illnesses).
Infection with HIV can weaken the immune system to the point that it has difficulty fighting off certain infections. These type of infections are known as "opportunistic" infections because they take the opportunity a weakened immune system gives to cause illness.
Many of the infections that cause problems or may be life-threatening for people with AIDS are usually controlled by a healthy immune system. The immune system of a person with AIDS is weakened to the point that medical intervention may be necessary to prevent or treat serious illness.
Q. Where did HIV come from ?
Ans. We do not know. Scientists have different theories about the origin of HIV, but none have been proven. The earliest known case of HIV was from a blood sample collected in 1959 from a man in Kinshasha, Democratic Republic of Congo. (How he became infected is not known.) Genetic analysis of this blood sample suggests that HIV-1 may have stemmed from a single virus in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
We do know that the virus existed in the United States since at least the mid to late 1970s. From 1979-1981 rare type of pneumonia, cancer, and other illnesses were being reported by doctors in Los Angeles and New York among a number of gay male patients. These were conditions not usually found in people with healthy immune systems.
In 1982 public health officials began to use the term "Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome," or AIDS, to describe the occurrences of opportunistic infections, Kaposi's sarcoma, and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in healthy men. Formal tracking (surveillance) of AIDS cases began that year in the United States.
The cause of AIDS is a virus that scientists isolated in 1983. The virus was at first named HTLV-III/LAV (human T-cell lymphotropic virus-type III/lymphadenopathy-associated virus) by an international scientific committee. This name was later changed to HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
The inescapable conclusion of more than 15 years of scientific research is that people, if exposed to HIV through sexual contact or injecting drug use, may become infected with HIV. If they become infected, most of them will eventually develop AIDS.
Q. How long it takes for HIV to cause AIDS ?
Ans. Since 1992, scientists have estimated that about half the people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varies greatly from person to person and can depend on many factors, including a person's health status and their health-related behaviours.
Today there are medical treatments that can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system. As with other diseases, early detection offers more options for treatment and preventative healthcare.
Q. Why is the AIDS epidemic considered so serious ?
Ans. AIDS affects people primarily when they are most productive and leads to premature death thereby severely affecting the socio-economic structure of whole families, communities and countries. Besides, AIDS is not curable and since HIV is transmitted predominantly through sexual contact, and with sexual practices being essentially a private domain, these issues are difficult to address.
Q. How can I avoid beinf infected through sex ?
Ans. You can avoid HIV infection by abstaining from sex, by having a mutually faithful monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner or by practicing safer sex. Safer sex involves the correct use of a condom during each sexual encounter and also includes non-penetrative sex.
Q. How can children and young people be protected from HIV ?
Ans. Children and adolescents have the right to know how to avoid HIV infection before they become sexually active. As some young people will have sex at an early age, they should know about condoms and where they are available. Parents and schools share the responsibility of ensuring that children understand how to avoid HIV infection, and learn the importance of tolerant, compassionate and non-discriminatory attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS.
Q. Can injections transmit HIV infection ?
Ans. Yes, if the injecting equipment is contaminated with blood containing HIV. Avoid injections unless absolutely necessary. If you must have an injection, make sure the needle and syringe come straight from a sterile package or have been sterilised properly; a needle and syringe that has been cleaned and then boiled for 20 minutes is ready for reuse. Finally, if you inject drugs of whatever kind, never use anyone else's injecting equipment.
Q. What about having a tattoo or your ears pierced ?
Ans. Tattooing, ear piercing, acupuncture and some kind of dental work all involve instruments that must be sterile to avoid infection. In general, you should refrain from any procedure if the skin is pierced, unless absolutely necessary.
Q. Is there a treatment for HIV/AIDS ?
Ans. All the currently licensed antiretroviral drugs, namely AZT, DDL and DDC, have effects which last only for a limited duration. In addition, these drugs are very expensive and have severe adverse reactions while the virus tends to develop resistance rather quickly with single-drug therapy. The emphasis is now on giving a combination of drugs including newer drugs called protease inhibitors; but this makes treatment even more expensive.
WHO's present policy does not recommend antiviral drugs but instead advocates strengthening of clinical management for HIV- associated opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis and diarrhoea. Better care programmes have been shown to prolong survival and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Q. But how can there suddenly be a disease that never existed before ?
Ans. If we look at AIDS as a worldwide pandemic, it appears as if it is something new and rather sudden. But if we look at AIDS as a disease and at the virus that causes it, we get a different picture. We find that both the disease and the virus are not new. They were there well before the epidemic occurred. We know that viruses sometimes change. A virus that was once harmless to humans can change and become harmful. This is probably what happened with HIV long before the AIDS epidemic.
What is new is the rapid spread of the virus. Researchers believe that the virus was present in isolated population groups years before the epidemic began. Then the situation changed – people moved more often and traveled more, they settled in big cities and lifestyles changed, including patterns of sexual behaviour. It became easier for HIV to spread through sexual intercourse and contaminated blood. As the virus spread, the disease which was already in existence became a new epidemic.
Q. Is it safe to work with someone infected with HIV ?
Ans. Yes. Most workers face no risk of getting the virus while doing their work. The virus is mainly transmitted through the transfer of blood or sexual fluids. Since contact with blood or sexual fluids is not part of most people's work, most workers are safe.
Q. What about working every day in close physical contact with an infected person ?
Ans. There are no risks involved. You may share the same telephone with other people in your office or work side by side in a crowded factory with other HIV infected persons, even share the same cup of tea, but this will not expose you to the risk of contracting the infection. Being in contact with dirt and sweat will also not give you the infection.
Q. Who is at risk while at work ?
Ans. Those who are likely to come into contact with blood that contains the virus are at risk. These include healthcare workers - doctors, dentists, nurses, laboratory technicians, and a few others. Such workers must take special care against possible contact with infected blood, as for example by using gloves.
Q. If a worker has HIV infection, should he or she be allowed to continue work ?
Ans. Workers with HIV infection who are still healthy should be treated in the same way as any other worker. Those with AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses should be treated in the same way as any other worker who is ill. Infection with HIV is not a reason in itself for termination of employment.
Q. Does an employee infected with the virus have to tell the employer about it ?
Ans. Anyone infected, or thought to be infected, must be protected from discrimination by employers, co-workers, unions or clients. Employees should not be required to inform their employer about their infection. If correct information and education about AIDS are available to employees, a climate of understanding may develop in the workplace protecting the rights of the HIV-infected person.
Q. Should an employer test a worker for HIV ?
Ans. Testing for HIV should not be required of workers. Imagine that you are a worker with HIV infection and are healthy and able to work. As far as your work is concerned, the information about the infection is private. If it is made public, you could be a target for discrimination. If AIDS-related illness makes you unfit for a particular job, you should be treated in the same way as any other employee with a chronic illness. A suitable alternative job can often be arranged by the employer. The employers in different parts of the world are beginning to deal with these problems more humanely. Their associations and workers' unions can be consulted for advice.
Q. What if you are already infected with HIV? Can you still travel ?
Ans. If you are already infected, consult your healthcare provider for guidance well before you plan to travel. Some immigration officials insist on an HIV free certificate. Your travel counsellor will advise you.
Q. 'AIDS is mainly a problem of developing countries.' or 'No, AIDS is really a problem of developed countries'. Which of these opinions is more accurate ?
Ans. Many people would like to claim that AIDS only affects others - other people or other countries. AIDS breaks the patterns that we associate with major diseases, for example, linking malaria with the tropics or perhaps heart disease with the industrialised world. AIDS affects both developing and industrialised countries, both cold and hot countries. HIV can spread anywhere where people live and have sex.
Q. How do AIDS problems in different countries relate to each other ?
Ans. They are related in at least three ways. First, in every country, AIDS is always spread by a virus transmitted through sexual intercourse and through blood. Specific actions by people are therefore required for it to spread in all countries.
Second, AIDS can be prevented in all countries by people if they change their sexual behaviour, by screening blood for transfusion, and by sterilising needles and syringes.
Third, the prevention and control of AIDS bring most countries of the world together in joint action. They have the same basic problems to solve. For example, donated blood must be tested and everyone must benefit from the availability of simple, reliable and cheap blood tests to detect the virus. Only joint international action can make such tests widely available and affordable.
Q. If a person becomes infected with HIV, does that mean he has AIDS ?
Ans. No, HIV is an unusual virus because a person can be infected with it for many years and yet appear to be perfectly healthy. But the virus gradually multiplies inside the body and eventually destroys the body's ability to fight off illnesses.
It is still not certain that everyone with HIV infection will get AIDS. It seems likely that most people with HIV will develop serious health problems. But this may be after many years. A person with HIV may not know he is infected but can pass the virus on to other people.
Q. Is it true that male circumcision may provide protection against HIV infection ?
Ans. Yes, the interior side of the foreskin has a mucosal surface, which is more susceptible to trauma than the tougher skin of the penile shaft or the glans. The foreskin also contains high levels of HIV target cells such as Langerhan’s cells. Recent study in Chicago has found out that foreskin mucosal tissue has a seven fold greater susceptibility to HIV-1 than cells in cervical tissue under same condition.
Q. Is oral sex unsafe ?
Ans. Oral sex (one person kissing, licking or sucking the sexual areas of another person) does carry some risk of infection. If a person sucks the penis of an infected man, for example, infected fluid could get into the mouth. The virus could then get into the blood if you have bleeding gums or tiny sores somewhere in the mouth. The same is true if infected sexual fluids from a woman get into the mouth of her partner. But infection from oral sex alone seems to be very rare.
Q. What about getting AIDS from body fluids like saliva ?
Ans. Although small amounts of HIV have been found in body fluids like saliva, faeces, urine and tears, there is no evidence that HIV can spread through these body fluids.
Q. Could I be at risk ?
Ans. Unless they know someone who has HIV, many people think this disease can't happen to them. Unfortunately, it can and does happen to all kind of people. By looking at your current and past sexual and drug practices (and your transfusion history), you can get a picture of your risk for HIV. Also you can figure out how you can reduce your future risk for HIV infection.
Q. How can I tell if I have HIV infection ?
Ans. The only way to know for sure if you have this virus is by taking a blood test called the "HIV Antibody Test." Some people call it the "HIV Test" or the "AIDS Test," even though this test alone cannot tell you if you have AIDS. The HIV test can tell you if you have the virus and can pass it to others in the ways already described. The test is not a part of your regular blood tests – you have to ask for it by name. It is a very accurate test.
If your test result is "positive," it means you have HIV infection and could benefit from special medical care. Additional tests can tell you how strong your immune system is and whether drug therapy is indicated. Some people stay healthy for a long time with HIV infection, while others develop serious illness and AIDS more rapidly. Scientists do not know why people respond in different ways to HIV infection. If your test is "negative," and you have not had any possible risk for HIV for six months prior to taking the test, it means you do not have HIV infection. You can stay free of HIV by following prevention guidelines.
Q. Should I take the HIV test ?
Ans. For some people taking the HIV antibody test can be a scary decision. Some people get tested every six months, even if they practice safer sex. No matter what the reasons are, taking the HIV antibody test can be a good idea. Sometimes taking the test is a way to make a new found commitment towards safer practices.
One thing that is important to remember is that getting tested for HIV will not change your HIV status. It just tells you whether or not you have it. With all the new treatments available, finding out your HIV status early on can extend your life.
To find out if you are at risk for HIV, ask yourself the following questions:
The counselling that should be provided before and after testing provides a good opportunity to learn more about HIV, discuss your risks and how to avoid infection.
Have you had unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex (e.g., intercourse without a condom, oral sex without a latex barrier)?
- Have you shared needles to inject street drugs or steroids or to pierce your skin?
- Have you had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or unwanted pregnancy?
- Have you had a blood transfusion or received blood products before April, 1985?
If you are a woman who is planning on getting pregnant, or are currently pregnant, you may want to consider getting tested. There are new treatments to help reduce the transmission of HIV from mother to child.
Q. If I am HIV Positive, what should I do ?
Ans. If you have tested positive for HIV, consider the following:
See a healthcare professional for a complete medical check-up for HIV infection and advice on treatment and health maintenance. Make sure you are tested for TB and other STDs. For women, this includes a regular gynaecological exam.
- Inform your sexual partner(s) about their possible risk for HIV. Your local health department has a partner notification programme that can assist you
Protect others from the virus by following the precautions talked about on this page (for example, always using condoms and not sharing needles with others)
Protect yourself from any additional exposure to HIV
Avoid drug and alcohol use, practice good nutrition, and avoid fatigue and stress
Seek support from trustworthy friends and family when possible, and consider getting professional counselling
Find a support group of people who are going through similar experiences
Do not donate blood, plasma, semen, body organs or other tissue
Q. Why do people who are infected with HIV eventually die ?
Ans. When people are infected with HIV, they do not die of HIV or AIDS. They die due to the effects that the HIV has on the body. With the immune system down, the body becomes susceptible to many infections, from the common cold to cancer. It is actually those particular infections, and the body's inability to fight the infections that cause these people to become so sick, that they eventually die.
Q. How can I tell if I am infected with HIV ? What are the symptoms ?
Ans. The only way to determine for sure whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected with HIV. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for many years.
The following may be warning signs of infection with HIV:
However, no one should assume he is infected if he has any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses. Again, the only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection.
- rapid weight loss
- dry cough
- recurring fever or profuse night sweats
- profound and unexplained fatigue
- swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
- diarrhoea that lasts for more than a week
- white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
- red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- memory loss, depression and other neurological disorders
Q. How long after a possible exposure should I wait to get tested for HIV ?
Ans. The tests commonly used to detect HIV infection actually look for antibodies produced by your body to fight HIV. Most people will develop detectable antibodies within three months after infection, the average being 25 days. In rare cases, it can take upto six months. For this reason, the CDC currently recommends testing six months after the last possible exposure (unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex or sharing needles). It would be extremely rare to take longer than six months to develop detectable antibodies.
Q. If I test HIV negative, does that mean that my partner is HIV negative also ?
Ans. No, your HIV test result reveals only your HIV status. Your negative test result does not tell you whether your partner has HIV or not. HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time there is an exposure. Therefore, your taking an HIV test should not be seen as a method to find out if your partner is infected.
Q. Can I get HIV from anal sex ?
Ans. Yes, it is possible for either sex partner to become infected with HIV during anal sex. HIV can be found in the blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, or vaginal fluid of a person infected with the virus. In general, the person receiving the semen is at greater risk of getting HIV because the lining of the rectum is thin and may allow the virus to enter the body during anal sex. However, a person who inserts his penis into an infected partner also is at risk because HIV can enter through the urethra (the opening at the tip of the penis) or through small cuts, abrasions or open sores on the penis.
Having unprotected (without a condom) anal sex is considered to be a very risky behaviour. If people choose to have anal sex, they should use a latex condom. Most of the times, condoms work well. However, condoms are more likely to break during anal sex than during vaginal sex. Thus, even with a condom, anal sex can be risky. A person should use a water-based lubricant in addition to the condom to reduce the chances of condom breaking.
Q. Why is injecting drugs a risk for HIV ?
Ans. At the start of every intravenous injection, blood is introduced into needles and syringes. HIV can be found in the blood of a person infected with the virus. The reuse of a blood-contaminated needle or syringe by another drug injector (sometimes called "direct syringe sharing") carries a high risk of HIV transmission because infected blood can be injected directly into the bloodstream.
In addition, sharing drug equipment (or "works") can be a risk for spreading HIV. Infected blood can be introduced into drug solutions by:
"Street sellers" of syringes may repackage used syringes and sell them as sterile syringes. It is important to know that sharing a needle or syringe for any use, including skin popping and injecting steroids, can put one at risk for HIV and other blood-borne infections.
- using blood-contaminated syringes to prepare drugs
- reusing water
- reusing bottle caps, spoons or other containers ("spoons" and "cookers")
- used to dissolve drugs in water and to heat drug solutions
- reusing small pieces of cotton or cigarette filters ("cottons") used to filter out particles that could block the needle
Q. Can a baby have the HIV test ?
Ans. Yes, but it will not necessarily show whether the baby is infected. This is because the test is for HIV antibodies and all babies born to mothers with HIV are born with HIV antibodies. Babies who are not infected lose their antibodies by the time they are about 18 months old. However most babies can be diagnosed as either infected or uninfected by the time they are three months old by using a different test, called a PCR test. The PCR test is more sensitive than the HIV test, and is not used in the standard HIV testing of adults. It looks for the presence of HIV itself, not antibodies.
Q. What are the possible advantages ?
Ans. If a pregnant woman has a positive test result there are now drugs that can reduce the risk of her passing HIV on to her baby in the womb or at birth. Delivery by elective Caesarean Section also reduces the risk of a baby becoming infected.
It is usually best for babies to be breast-fed. However, if a mother has HIV, beast-feeding will increase the risk of her baby becoming infected. If a pregnant woman has a negative test result this can be very reassuring.
Q. What are the possible disadvantages ?
Ans. Some pregnant women feel that they could not cope with finding out that they have HIV and that they may have put their baby at risk.
A woman who is infected with HIV can still become pregnant and have a baby. Being pregnant will not increase her chances of developing AIDS. But some doctors think that pregnancy will make a woman who already has AIDS more seriously ill.
If a woman's partner is not infected with HIV he is at risk of becoming infected if they have sexual intercourse without a condom. An HIV positive woman also has to consider how she will cope if her baby is infected with HIV. Some doctors think that a woman who has recently been infected, or a woman who has AIDS, is more likely to have an infected baby.
Q. How does a mother transmit HIV to her unborn child ?
Ans. An HIV-infected mother can infect the child in her womb through her blood. The baby is more at risk if the mother has been recently infected or is in a later stage of AIDS. Transmission can also occur at the time of birth when the baby is exposed to the mother's blood and to some extent transmission can occur through breast milk.
Q. Are all pregnant women tested ?
Ans. Pregnant women are not automatically tested for HIV. In some ante-natal clinics the test is offered and in others women have to ask for it. All pregnant women can have an HIV test. A woman will never be tested without her consent. If a woman is not sure what the arrangements are at her ante-natal clinic, she can ask her doctor or midwife about an HIV test.
Q. What happens when you have the test ?
Ans. Before taking an HIV test a woman should be offered the opportunity to talk to someone about the test and what the result will mean. Then the woman can make up her mind whether she wants to be tested or not. If a woman has a test, the clinic will tell her when she can come and get the result. This might be a few days or a week.
The HIV test involves taking a small amount of blood, usually from a person's arm. If you are pregnant when you have the test you will probably not need to give extra blood, as it should be possible for the test to be done at the same time as other blood tests.
The test can be done at any time. But it takes about three months after being infected for a person's blood to have enough antibodies in it for them to show up in the test. For this reason most people are advised to wait at least for three months after their last risk of being infected before they have a test.
When a woman is given the result of her HIV test she should be given the opportunity to talk to someone about it. This is important whether the result says a woman is infected or not.
Q. What happens if a woman has a positive test result ?
Ans. When a woman has a positive test result she should be able to plan with a doctor or midwife what happens next and arrange to have follow-up checks. She will be offered special medical care to reduce the risk of her baby being infected.
Some pregnant women with HIV decide to have their baby. Others choose to have a termination. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is very personal and difficult. Someone who has a termination needs time to grieve for the loss of their baby. Someone who is HIV positive also needs to think about how it will affect decisions about pregnancy in the future.
Q. What is risk of TB among People living with HIV infection ?
Ans. Tuberculosis is a commonest opportunistic infection (OI) in HIV infected individuals, HIV infection is an important risk factor for acquiring TB infection and its progression to active TB. The annual risk of developing TB in persons living with HIV (PLHIV) who are co-infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis ranges from 5% to 15%. Up to 60% of PLHIV develop active TB during their lifetime compared to about 10% of HIV-negative individuals. The risk of TB in HIV-infected persons continues to increase as HIV disease progresses and immunity decreases.
HIV/TB together is a deadly combination with extremely high death rates (15%- 18%) reported among HIV-infected TB cases notified under Revised National TB Control Programme (RNTCP). It could be fatal if not treated.