What is HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that infects the blood and slowly weakens and destroys the body’s immune system, which is the body’s natural way of fighting infections.
Once a person contracts the virus it will live in their body for the rest of their life.
When people have been living with HIV for some time and it has weakened their body’s ability to fight infections they may develop AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
Effective medications (treatments) are available to slow down HIV progression and keep the immune system strong. These treatments help people manage their HIV infection and need to be taken every day.
How can I get it?
HIV lives in the blood, vaginal secretions, pre-ejaculate (pre cum) fluid and semen of someone with the virus. A person becomes infected with HIV when a body fluid, containing the virus, enters their bloodstream. The most common ways for this to happen is when people share drug injecting equipment or have vaginal or anal sex without a condom.
It can also be passed on from mother to child through breast milk.
It is recommended that you have an HIV test if you have ever shared injecting equipment or if you have ever had vaginal or anal sex without a condom.
Finding out early that you have HIV means you are able to seek medical help in order to avoid serious health problems.
Outside of Australia some countries have a high prevalence of HIV infection in both men and women.
High rates of HIV exist in some of Australia’s neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.
If you are pregnant it is important to know if you have HIV in order to reduce the risk of transmitting it to your unborn child.
Your local sexual or womens health clinic can provide excellent support and medical assistance.
Drug Use & HIV
People who inject drugs are considered a high risk group for contracting HIV and Hepatitis C. This is because when injecting equipment is shared there is the opportunity for blood from one person to enter the bloodstream of another person.
It’s also important to remember that HIV can be spread by having vaginal or anal sex without using condoms.
Free condoms are available from needle and syringe programs and it’s a good idea to get some if you think you might be having sex, especially as alcohol and other drugs can weaken your judgement about using condoms during sex.
Men who have sex with men and HIV
A majority of new HIV diagnoses in Australia are among men who have unprotected anal sex with another man.
Some of those transmissions occur among men in new relationships who are not completely sure of their own or their partner’s HIV status and stop using condoms.
When making the decision to stop using condoms in a relationship it is important to talk openly with your partner and to be completely sure of your HIV status.
If you only have unprotected sex with each other and do not share injecting equipment, you’ll need to receive a negative HIV test result 12 weeks after any possible exposure to the virus to be completely sure that you are HIV negative.
It is important that you are able to talk to each other should either of you break your agreement and have unprotected sex with someone else or share injecting equipment. Condoms should be used until you have another negative HIV test result 12 weeks after the exposure risk.
Recently exposed to HIV?
PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) is a month-long course of medication that, if taken within 72 hours of HIV entering the body, can prevent a person becoming infected with HIV.
PEP drugs are the same drugs that people who have HIV use to reduce its impact on the body.
PEP Information Line: 1800 889 887 (24 hours)
Getting an HIV test
Any doctor can take your blood for an HIV test. They will take a small sample of your blood and send it to a laboratory to be examined. The test looks for HIV antibodies which are what your body naturally produces as a response to having the virus.
You will receive your results 1-2 weeks after you have the test. By law the results need to be given to you in person, so you’ll need to make a second appointment to get your HIV test results.
It will take your body up to12 weeks after being infected with HIV to produce HIV antibodies. This 12 week period is called the “HIV window period”. When you receive a negative HIV test result it means that you did not have HIV in your body 12 weeks before your blood was tested.
If you have shared injecting equipment or have had vaginal or anal sex without a condom during those 12 weeks, you will need to go back and get another test 12 weeks after the last time you put yourself at risk to make completely sure you do not have HIV.
Support for People with HIV
There are a number of organisations who provide medical information, social and/or psychological support for people with HIV. Finding out that you have HIV can be a traumatic experience and you may experience feelings of shock, fear and anxiety. In the developed world, having HIV is no longer a death sentence and people from all walks of life are living with HIV, many enjoying full and active lives.
It is important to receive expert medical information and recommended that you seek a HIV specialist doctor. Call the HIV & Sexual Health Connect Line on 1800 038 125 to find a HIV specialist doctor.
Many people who have been newly diagnosed with HIV benefit from some counselling or find that getting involved with other HIV positive people (peer support) helps them deal with their diagnosis. Call the HIV & Sexual Health Connect Line on 1800 038 125 to find out about available support services.
The History of HIV
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s doctors in New York and San Francisco noticed that they were treating gay men for PCP (Pneumocystis pneumonia), Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of skin cancer) and severe oral candida infections which were uncommon in healthy adult men.
In 1982 the term AIDS was first used and cases among people who inject drugs and people with haemophilia begin to appear, showing that the epidemic was not limited to gay men.
In November 1982, at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, a visitor from New York was diagnosed with the first case of AIDS in Australia. The first Australian death from AIDS was in Melbourne in 1983.
The Australian government responded quickly to the AIDS crisis and provided funding for HIV/AIDS projects that included education campaigns to gay and bisexual men promoting condom use and the introduction of needle and syringe programs.
The Fairfield Hospital Laboratory in Melbourne began to regularly test Australian blood products many months before the rest of the world.
In 1987 the government began a National AIDS Education campaign that included the Grim Reaper and Russian Roulette TV commercials and ten million education booklets about AIDS and safer sex were distributed across Australia.
In June 1987 Australian clinics begin to introduce AZT as a treatment for AIDS. By this time Australia had 1,290 reported cases of AIDS of which 630 people had died.
In 1988 “World AIDS Day” was launched by the United Nations and 1 December each year is designated as World AIDS Day to highlight the worldwide issues of HIV and AIDS.
In 1996 anti–HIV treatments become widely available through specialist clinics in Australia and people with HIV begin taking a combination of different antiretroviral drugs (combination therapy). These drug combinations helped by slowing the progression of HIV and a decrease in the death rates was noticed.
By the end of 2007, the cumulative number of HIV infections in Australia was 27,331 and the number of people having died from AIDS was 6,767.
At the end of 2015, a total of 1,025 people were diagnosed with HIV. The cumulative number of HIV infections had actually reduced to 25,313 (despite a rising population) however an estimated 10% of these people were unaware of their HIV-positive status.
While many people with HIV are now living longer and experiencing fewer HIV-related illnesses, some have developed drug resistance or have had to stop taking treatments due to side-effects. Issues of poverty, isolation, inadequate housing, depression and treatment side-effects remain major issues for long term HIV positive people.