HIV AIDS: The Must Know Facts

December 1st is observed across the globe as World AIDS day to increase the awareness about HIV AIDS. Till date there is neither a vaccine nor a cure for HIV. Awareness remains our prime weapon against the disease. Here is a look at some facts that you must know about HIV.

HIV transmission

What CAN cause HIV infection?

HIV spreads when blood or some body fluids from an infected person enter another person. The body fluids that can transmit HIV are blood, semen and pre-ejaculatory fluid, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Urine, saliva and tears have minimal concentration of HIV and are not known to transmit the infection. Known modes of HIV transmission are:

  • Vaginal sex without condom
  • Anal sex without condom
  • Sharing needles and syringes, spoons, filters etc used to inject drugs
  • Oral sex. The risk is much lower but infection is possible.
  • From infected mother to baby
  • Infected tattoo needles or shaving instruments (though this is not a common mode)

Blood transfusion, surgical procedures or receiving injections at a clinic can theoretically cause infection, but doesn’t because adequate precautions are taken in healthcare settings.

What DOES NOT cause infection?

  • Kissing or biting: The quantity of virus present in saliva is usually insufficient to cause infection.
  • Hugging, shaking hands, working together, sharing cups
  • Sitting next to a sneezing, coughing, spitting infected individual
  • Using swimming pools, toilet seats, showers used by an infected person
  • Playing sports together
  • Mosquito bites

HIV Testing

HIV testing is rapidly evolving. Here is a summary of the currently available HIV tests.

  1. Antibody tests: Most commonly available tests for HIV check for antibodies to the virus. HIV ELISA is the most widely available antibody test. Positive results are often followed up with a more sophisticated antibody test called Western Blot.
    Rapid Tests are also a type of antibody test. Their main advantage over other antibody tests is that they can produce quick results and do not require sophisticated lab facilities. You can now get tested for HIV using a saliva sample and get the results within just 15-20 minutes using a rapid test.
    HIV Home Tests available in some countries also check for antibodies to the virus. Home testing is not encouraged because of the lack of counseling before and after the test.

    How soon can antibody tests detect HIV? Antibody tests become positive only after six weeks to three months of infection. This is known as the “window period”. Hence, it is recommended that you get tested after three months of last exposure to a possible source of infection.
  2. P24 antigen test: It’s a test that can detect the presence of an HIV protein called P24. Soon after HIV infection P24 can be detected in the blood but becomes gradually undetectable as the HIV antibody level rises. P24 antigen tests are not usually used for diagnostic purposes.
  3. Fourth Generation Tests: These tests combine P24 antigen tests with standard antibody tests to reduce the ‘diagnostic window’.
  4. PCR: These tests detect the genetic material of HIV. They are expensive as compared to antibody tests. These tests are also known as viral load test or HIV NATT (nucleic acid amplification testing).

    How soon can PCR/NAAT detect HIV? These tests can identify HIV in the blood within two or three weeks of infection.

Should I Get Tested?

If you answer yes to any of the questions below, you should definitely get tested

  1. Have you had unprotected sex with someone whose history of sex partners and/or drug use is unknown to you?
  2. Have you had unprotected sex in exchange for drugs or money?
  3. Have you had unprotected sex with men who have sex with men, multiple partners, or anonymous partners?
  4. Have you shared needles to inject recreational drugs or steroids or to pierce your skin?
  5. Have you had a blood transfusion before April, 1985 (before the routine screening of blood for HIV started)?
  6. Have you had unprotected sex with someone who could answer yes to any of the above questions?

All women who are pregnant should be tested during each pregnancy.

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