AIDS is an acronym for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It is caused by a virus called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The disease was first recognized in the United States in homosexual men in the early 1980’s and in the mid 80’s the virus that causes the disease was identified. Infection by HIV may or may not cause an initial flu-like syndrome with rash which generally subsides after a few weeks. Most people then become asymptomatic until the virus weakens the immune system enough for them to be afflicted by unusual infections or malignancies (cancer). HIV is passed from one person to another primarily by 3 main routes:
1. Sexual contact. This includes vaginal and anal sex. Oral sex can also transmit the virus, especially if an individual has small abrasions or cuts in their mouth.
2. Injection of the virus into the blood stream by intravenous drug use, blood transfusion, tattoo needles, piercings etc. Intravenous drug use is by far the most likely mode of transmission in this category. Blood which is transfused in hospitals in this country is relatively safe and is routinely checked for evidence of HIV infection. You cannot get HIV by donating blood! Tattoos and piercings will not transmit HIV if clean, sterile needles are used. Needles should never be re-used for tattoos or piercings.
3. Passage of the virus from a pregnant mother to her baby. HIV can pass from an infected mother to her baby in the uterus, during the birth of the baby as it moves through the birth canal, or through breast milk.
There are a variety of medications that people infected with HIV can take to delay the virus’s destruction of their immune systems. Unfortunately HIV infection cannot be cured at this time. Some people can live for years without apparent illness, while others quickly become very sick and die. However, all people infected with HIV may spread the virus to others even if they do not feel ill!
Testing for HIV infection is usually done by detecting the presence of an antibody to the virus. Because it can take about 6 weeks for a person to develop HIV antibodies, the test is not accurate in very early infections. Home test kits for HIV have been developed, but have not been shown to be as accurate as the regular blood test performed by doctors, clinics etc. If you are concerned you may have HIV infection, get a blood test from your doctor, a public health clinic, family planning clinic etc.