What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that takes over cells in the immune system in order to reproduce. This weakens the immune system, which is the body’s defence against illness and infection.

Because HIV is a virus, there’s no cure, but there are medications that can control it. With treatment, many people can have close to normal lifespans. If left untreated, HIV can progress to advanced HIV disease, where the immune system is unable to fight off illness and infection.

HIV may not produce obvious symptoms for many years after infection, so people can 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. People with HIV can have long and healthy lives.

How does HIV affect the body?

HIV causes long-term damage and inflammation, which can affect circulation, the heart, and other organs. It weakens the body’s immune system 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 and more copies of itself, it becomes harder for the body to fight infections and illnesses.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is an older term to refer to advanced HIV disease:

  • Acquired means that you are not born with the syndrome; you get it from somewhere.
  • 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 symptoms and infections (called opportunistic infections) that indicate immune system breakdown.

When a person with HIV does not get treatment, their immune system stops working, leaving them vulnerable to illness and death. With treatment advances and accessibility, few cases of AIDS are seen in Canada. Nowadays, AIDS is often referred to more accurately as advanced HIV disease.

How many people have HIV?

For updated information, try the following sources:

British Columbia
Reportable Disease Dashboard (BC Centre for Disease Control)

Fast facts: Epidemiology in Canada (CATIE)
The epidemiology of HIV in females (CATIE)
Summary: Estimates of HIV incidence, prevalence and proportion undiagnosed in Canada, 2014 (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Global Health Observatory Data (World Health Organization)