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HIV 101


HIV 101


What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks your immune system. Over time, your immune system may grow weak and you can become sick with different illnesses. After time, your immune system will no longer be able to defend your body from infections, diseases or cancers that can kill you. This advanced stage of the HIV disease is called AIDS.


Where did HIV come from?

No one knows for sure where the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) came from. There are many theories, but none of them have been proven or dismissed absolutely.


Who Can Get HIV?

Anyone who has unprotected sex (especially penetrative sex) or shares needles with someone who is HIV positive or whose HIV status is not known could become infected with HIV. If you think that HIV/AIDS only affects gay men or injection drug users, you are wrong. You are not protected from HIV because you are straight, or young, or a woman, or living in a rural area. You don’t get HIV because of who you are, or where you live. It is what you do that puts you at risk for getting infected.


The proportion of new infections due to heterosexual exposure has increased steadily in the last twenty years, reaching 21% of new infections by 2000. Globally, heterosexual activity accounts for over 70% of HIV infections


How does HIV cause AIDS?

HIV infects and destroys blood cells that a person’s immune system needs to work. HIV stays in the body for years, destroying blood cells until their immune system is so damaged that they develop AIDS (also known as advanced HIV disease). At this stage, HIV has weakened their immune system to the point that they can no longer fight off certain types of infections that other people can fight.

In Canada, a doctor diagnoses AIDS when a person with HIV develops one or more of a number of specific illnesses which indicate AIDS, such as recurrent bacterial pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis or invasive cervical cancer. These illnesses are sometimes referred to as opportunistic infections. A person can still be very ill with HIV but not have an AIDS diagnosis.

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.


HIV In Canada

HIV In Canada

Estimated number of prevalent HIV infections in Canada and associated ranges of uncertainty at the end of 2008 and 2005 (point estimates, ranges and percentages are rounded)

MSM: men who have sex with men; IDU: people who inject drugs; Heterosexual/non-endemic: heterosexual contact with a person who is either HIV infected or at risk of HIV or heterosexual contact as the only identified risk; Heterosexual/endemic: origin from a country where HIV is endemic; Other: recipients of blood transfusion or clotting factor, perinatal and occupational transmission [HIV/AIDS Epi Updates – July 2010 – Public Health Agency of Canada]

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.


How is HIV transmitted?

How is HIV transmitted?

You can become infected with HIV if you do the following (with someone who is HIV positive of whose HIV status you do not know):

  • have vaginal or anal intercourse without a latex or polyurethane condom (very high risk)
  • have oral sex without protection during which semen, vaginal fluid or menstrual blood enters open cuts or sores (which can be unnoticable) in your mouth (lower risk)
  • share needles or any equipment for injecting drugs such as cocaine, heroin or steroids (invisible amounts of blood are transmitted through sharing needles, syringes, water for diluting, cotton filters, and straws or pipes) (very high risk)
  • share sex toys, razors or toothbrushes (lower risk)

What are other ways I can get infected?

  • an HIV positive woman can pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy, at birth or through breast feeding
  • receiving a blood transfusion or blood product in Canada before 1986 (since then, blood screening has made the risk of infection very low)


How can I protect myself if I choose to drink or inject drugs?

Alcohol or drugs won’t infect you with HIV, but taking risks while you’re drunk or high might

Reduce your risk of HIV infection:

  • limit drinking or drug taking before sex – this way, you are more likely to take precautions
  • if you are going to be drinking or injecting drugs, bring latex or polyurethane condoms (or other protective barriers) and/or clean needles with you (condoms and needles can be obtained for free from AIDS Moncton)
  • practice safer sex
  • practice safer needle use – use a new needle and new supplies each time you inject drugs. Don’t share your rigs!

If I MUST re-use drug injecting equipment, how do I reduce the risk?

You can reduce the risk of infection by cleaning your needle and syringe

  • Fill syringe with clean water, shake for 30 seconds and empty it. Throw away the water
  • Fill syringe with bleach, shake it for 30 seconds and empty it. Repeat with more bleach
  • Fill syringe with water again, shake it for 30 seconds and empty it. Throw away the water

Remember, needle cleaning with bleach may reduce your risk for HIV infection, but other viruses like hepatitis may not be killed by bleach. Do not re-use needles unless you have no other options. You can get clean rigs from AIDS Moncton’s Needle Distribution.

How do I know if tattooing or piercing will be safe?

The safest way to get a tattoo or piercing is to go to a professional. In tattooing or piercing, HIV can be transmitted by tiny, invisible particles of blood on equipment that has not been sterilized correctly. These particles can also be in tattoo ink

Professional piercers:

  • use jewlery made of surgical steel or niobium
  • don’t use stud guns (when in doubt ASK what they use)

Professional tattooists:

  • pour ink into new, disposable containers
  • use these containers only for your tattoo

Professional tattooists and piercers:

  • use sterile needles every time
  • wear latex gloves
  • have information about safety posted in the waiting area
  • give instructions on how to prevent infection (after-care)
  • are experienced and knowledgeable
  • sterilize reusable equipment in an autoclave (a machine that uses very hot water to sterilize equipment – equipment should be sterilized at 121 degrees celcius for 30 minutes)

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

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What are the Risks?

What are the Risks?

You CANNOT get infected by:

  • casual, everyday contact
  • shaking hands, hugging, kissing
  • coughs, sneezes
  • giving blood
  • swimming pools, toilet seats
  • sharing utensils, water fountains
  • mosquitoses, other insects, animals.

Is it safe for me to be around someone who has HIV?

Yes! it is quite safe to work, study or play with people who have HIV and AIDS. It is also safe for children to be in day care or attend school with children who have HIV and AIDS

What are universal precautions?

Universal precautions are infection control guidelines designed to protect workers from exposure to diseases spread by blood and other body fluids. These guidelines are meant to keep people safe from infection and discrimination by suggesting that we assume that everyone is infected with a blood-borne disease such as HIV or hepatitis.

If you ever have to clean up anyone’s blood or any other body fluids, wear latex gloves, clean the soiled surface and disinfect with a fresh bleach solution (one part bleach, 9 parts water). Place any soiled materials in a sealed plastic bag and discard in a covered garbage container. Wash your hands afterwards with soap and warm water. Machine-wash any soiled clothes separately in hot soapy water.

Keep in mind that the Canadian Charter of Human Rights prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities; this includes HIV/AIDS. Also, Canadian law recognizes HIV/AIDS as a disability, like any other medical condition.

How can I have sex more safely?

You can have fun – and erotic – sex with no risk of getting HIV. There are many sexual activities that do not involve any risk of semen, vaginal fluids, or blood entering your blood stream

What are some examples of Safer Sex?

No risk

  • Kissing – including deep or open-mouthed
  • hugging
  • massaging
  • fondling, touching, rubbing
  • masturbating (alone or with your partner)

Low risk

  • Oral sex is considered low risk because the saliva doesn’t transmit HIV. However, if you have any fresh cuts or sores in your mouth (even unnoticable), infected semen, blood or vaginal fluids can enter your bloodstream when you lick or suck a penis, vagina or anus

High Risk

The linings of the vagina and anus are delicate and thin, and can tear easily. These small tears can be invisible and unnoticable, but enough to let HIV into your blood stream. Therefore, the riskiest sexual activities are:

  • having vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom
  • sharing sex toys without using a new condom for each other, or without cleaning them between users.

NEVER re-use condoms!

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.




Should I get tested for HIV?

You should consider getting tested if you or your partner(s) have ever:

  • had sex, especially anal or vaginal intercourse, without a latex or polyurethane condom or other protective barrier
  • had sex while under the influence of alcohol or drugs – you might not have used protection
  • shared needles or syringes (or other drug equipment like water, cotton filters, cookers, pipes, straws) to inject drugs, including steroids
  • had tattooing, piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized equipment
  • had a blood transfusion or received other blood products before November 1986.

What is an HIV test?

It is a simple blood test that detects whether or not you have HIV antibodies in your blood. These antibodies may take three to six months to appear in your blood after you are exposed to HIV – this is called the “window period.” If you are tested during the window period and the result is negative, you will have to be re-tested later to confirm the result.

In addition to the blood test, there are other types of HIV tests – oral/saliva test, urine test, rapid test and home test – but they are not widely available in Canada. Genotyping is another test that can detect the presence of HIV in your blood or determine a specific strain of HIV, but it is expensive so it is only used in urgent situations.

It usually takes 2 to 3 weeks to get the results of an HIV test

Why get tested??

You should get tested to find out your HIV status. If you are HIV positive you can:

  • get early treatment to stay healthy
  • get treatment to reduce the chances of the baby getting HIV if you are pregnant
  • take precautions to not give HIV to others
  • pre- and post-test counseling is usually available for anyone getting the HIV antibody test. Make sure to ask questions and seek support; you have the right to be well informed

If you are HIV negative you may experience less stress and anxiety because you will know your status and you can learn more about how to reduce your risk of becoming infected

When should I get tested?

The test for HIV detects antibodies that are produced to fight the virus. Since our bodies take three to six months to produce enough antibodies to be detectable by the test, you should get tested at least three months after the last time you put yourself at risk. It is important to practice safer sex and to not share injecting equipment whether or not you think you are infected. The 3 to 6 month period is often referred to as a “window period.” If you have been infected with the virus, you are most infectious during the window period; that means that you could infect someone else with HIV before even knowing that you are infected.

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.



Frequently Asked Questions


Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a cure for HIV/AIDS?

No. There is no cure for HIV or for AIDS

The medications used to treat HIV infections are called Highly Active Anti- Retroviral Therapies (HAART). These therapies are a mixture of medications such as AZT, 3TC, ddI and protease inhibitors; they work by slowing down the body’s production of HIV but these DO NOT get rid of HIV or cure AIDS. The medications help to reduce the level of HIV in the blood, to make the immune system stronger and to keep some people healthy longer.

Is there a vaccine for HIV/AIDS?

No. There is no vaccine for HIV or for AIDS

You may have heard that scientists are trying to find a vaccine to prevent HIV infections but most experts believe that such a vaccine won’t be achieved for many years. Recently, there have been promising breakthroughs in research on vaccines that reduce viral load (the amount of HIV in the body), thereby decreasing chances of spreading the virus. A vaccine to prevent HIV, however, may still be years away.

Is there a ‘morning after’ pill that prevents HIV infection?

No. There is no pill that prevents HIV infection

You may have heard about medications for HIV that are used to prevent infection after exposure. These medications are called Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). PEP is not a single pill; it is a 4-week treatment including several anti-HIV medications designed to reduce (but not eliminate) the possibility of infection with the virus after a known exposure. People on PEP must take very high doses of the antiretroviral medications used to treat HIV infections. They must follow a strict medication regime, taking many pills several times a day. The side effects of PEP include nausea, tiredness, swelling of the liver, and kidney stones.

*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.