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HIV: The Basics

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that weakens the immune system- the body’s defense against illness and infection. HIV uses cells in the immune system in order to make more copies of itself. As it makes more copies, the virus becomes stronger in the body and the immune system grows weaker. Because HIV is a virus, there’s no cure, but there are treatments that can slow its progression. With treatment, many people can have close to normal lifespans. If left untreated, HIV can progress to advanced HIV disease (also called AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

HIV can be transmitted from person to person through sexual activity, sharing drug use equipment, and during pregnancy, labour or breastfeeding. HIV isn’t transmitted through the air, nor is it transmitted through tears or saliva. A blood test can tell whether you have come in contact with HIV. If you produce HIV antibodies, you have been exposed and are considered HIV-positive.

You can have HIV and live a long and healthy life. HIV may not produce obvious symptoms you can see for many years after infection, so you may have it and not know it. The earlier HIV is treated, the better the outcome, and this is why it’s good for everyone to know their HIV status.

How does HIV affect the body?

HIV causes long term damage. It creates ongoing inflammation that affects circulation, heart and other organs. When it weakens your immune system, it affects your body’s ability to fight off illness and infection. It weakens your immunity in several ways:

  • HIV kills healthy immune cells, called white blood cells or CD4 cells
  • HIV makes copies of itself, which attack the CD4 white blood cells
  • As HIV makes more copies of itself in your body, it’s harder to fight infections and illnesses. You may progress to advanced HIV disease (AIDS) .

 What is AIDS or advanced HIV disease?

AIDS is an acronym (term) that’s often being replaced by “Advanced HIV disease.”  Nevertheless, the meaning of AIDS offers a good explanation of what happens as HIV progresses. AIDS stands for:

  • Acquired means that you are not born with the syndrome, you get it and it progressively affects the body.
  • Immune refers to your body’s defence system against illness and infection.
  • Deficiency refers to the weakening of the immune system.
  • Syndrome refers to a set of infections that indicate immune system breakdown. These infections are called “opportunistic infections”.

Before treatment was available, an AIDS diagnosis was given when an HIV+ person’s CD4 blood cells dropped below a certain level and they had an opportunistic infection, indicating the a progressive breakdown of the immune system. These days people may have low CD4 counts and an opportunistic infection, but with the help of HIV treatment, deal with both and return to health.

If you want to talk with someone about HIV, you can contact Positive Women’s Network for non-judgmental, informed support in British Columbia. If you want to connect with your local HIV/AIDS organization, visit our links to other organizations and resources.

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