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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Viruses like HIV need to infect the cells of a living organism in order to replicate. The human immune system usually finds and kills viruses fairly quickly, but HIV attacks the immune system itself – the very thing that would normally get rid of a virus. HIV infects and gradually destroys a person’s immune system, reducing their body’s ability to fight against even simple infections like a common cold.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and is caused by HIV. AIDS is not a single condition or disease; it describes the stage in which the human immune system can no longer cope due to the damage caused by HIV. AIDS develops as HIV gradually wears down the immune system, and leaves the individual prone to opportunistic Infections that an HIV negative person could easily fight off. A person is said to have AIDS when their CD4 count reaches 200. However, if a person receives treatment and their CD4 goes above 200, they are back to having HIV only. With developments in treatment and healthy living, HIV/AIDS does not have to be a death sentence, but can be a manageable disease.
Eventually, most people who are infected with HIV will develop AIDS, but there are a number of factors that determine how quickly this happens. Choosing to live a healthy lifestyle will deter the development of HIV to AIDS, so choosing not to smoke or drink alcohol and making sure you exercise if you are HIV positive are all good choices. There are medical treatments that also help to slow the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system and develops in to AIDS, although the treatments do not actually cure HIV or AIDS. You can read more on that in our ‘Is there a cure?’ section.
Anyone can contract HIV – it doesn’t discriminate. HIV lives in the bodily fluids of an infected person – blood, vaginal secretions, semen and breast milk, and often in high concentrations. When these bodily fluids come in to contact and one person is HIV positive, you risk transmission. The most common ways that HIV is transmitted are:
An HIV+ person can also get reinfected with a different strain of HIV.
You CANNOT get infected with HIV through everyday social contact such as kissing, hugging, touching, sneezing, coughing, playing sports, sharing eating utensils, or sharing a bathroom with a person who is infected. There are no documented cases of transmission through saliva, sweat or tears. Mosquitoes, fleas and other biting insects don’t transmit HIV either.
If you are having sex, there are ways to make it much safer and protect yourself from the risk of HIV. Using a condom correctly (or a female condom, known as a ‘femidom’) reduces the risk of HIV transmission because it stops the sexual bodily fluids from coming in to contact with one another. Remaining faithful to one partner, once you have tested together and know each others’ status, also reduces the risk of infection.
For men, circumcision is showing signs of reducing the risk of contracting HIV by 60%. But it’s important not to forget that you to still have to wear a condom to protect yourself and your partner.
Choosing not to have sex is also an option. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time or be intimate, but it does mean that you are avoiding any chance of becoming infected with the HIV virus.
For people who use needles to inject recreational drugs, it is a MUST to use clean needles EVERY time you inject. If you share needles with other people, you risk becoming infected.
When used properly, condoms (and female condoms, ‘femidoms’) can substantially reduce the risk of HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies.
Condoms come in a wide variety of colours, textures and even flavours, but they must be used properly to ensure you’re protected. Make sure condoms are made of latex or polyurethane and make sure that they do not tear or come off by using plenty of water-based lubricant (especially for anal sex). DO NOT use oil-based lubricants like Vaseline/petroleum jellies, body lotions or oils – they can cause the latex to break down and tear very quickly.
It’s good to know your status.
You might want to seriously think about taking a test if you’ve:
There are different types of HIV test, including an antibody test which looks for HIV antibodies in a person’s blood, and a rapid test which is based on the same technology, but can produce results within 20 minutes.
Tests can be provided in health clinics, doctors’ surgeries or specialist HIV/AIDS voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) sites, by a doctor, trained counsellor, nurse or other health professional. To find a testing centre near you, click here. Either a blood sample or an oral fluid sample will be taken, depending on the type of test. The test should always be confidential, and personal doctors are not told without the person’s permission. Most HIV tests can detect HIV infection within three months of initial exposure to the virus, but it can sometimes take up to six months for antibodies to reach detectable levels. It is generally recommended that you take a test three months after the last possible exposure. If you get tested shortly after exposure then you should take another test a few months later to confirm the result.
Getting the results of your HIV test can be an emotional event and whatever the outcome, you need to think about what to do next. If you are HIV negative, make sure that you continue to protect yourself at all times. You should also take another test about three months later to confirm the negative result.
If you are HIV positive, the sooner you take steps to protect your health and the health of those around you, the better. Medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. The proper treatment may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions. You should:
There is still NO cure or vaccine for HIV or AIDS, and there probably won’t be for quite a few years to come. Once infected, there is no way to get the virus out of your body. However, there are some drugs which help to slow down the damage HIV does to your immune system and therefore slow down the onset of AIDS.
If your condom breaks during sex, it not only ruins the moment but can cause a lot of anxiety. If a condom breaks while you are having sex, stop and carefully pull out or have your partner pull out. It’s important to talk to your partner about what’s happened. Discuss when and if you have been tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Have an honest talk about how careful you have been in the past and if there is any risk that either of you may be HIV positive or have another STD.
Even if you think you and your partner are safe, go to a testing clinic / health practitioner and enquire about testing options. Also, be sure to get tested again in six months, since it often takes that long for antibodies to reach detectable levels. Some people display mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or swollen glands shortly after they’ve been infected with HIV. Even if you don’t experience these symptoms it is important to get tested and be sure of your HIV status, as well as to check for any other STDs. Girls should remember they have put themselves at risk of pregnancy too and should seek advice on unwanted pregnancies.