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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is a virus that damages the body’s defence system making it hard to fight off infections. If someone with HIV goes on to get certain serious illnesses, this condition is called AIDS which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

HIV: The Hows and Whys Explained

It struck fear into the hearts of the UK male gay community in  the 1980s, before later being linked to drug addicts sharing needles. HIV is still around in the UK today - but we’re much more aware of the virus; how it’s passed and crucially, how to treat it. Thankfully, new drugs have meant it isn’t the death sentence it used to be.

But still, it’s not a virus anyone wants to have to deal with. Unfortunately it’s still easily passed on.

How HIV is spread between humans
HIV is dormant in the blood of an infected person. The way it’s spread is via direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluid, blood and breast milk (which is how a mother passes it on to her baby).

It’s not possible to contract HIV from someone by them kissing you, spitting, biting or sneezing on you. Neither will sharing towels or cutlery pass it on. And you don’t have to worry about sharing a toilet or swimming pool.

Ways in which the virus is passed on
Intercourse. The most common way people pick up the virus is through intercourse (vaginal or anal) with an infected person without using a condom. Doctors believe it is also possible for the virus to spread via oral sex, particularly if the person has mouth ulcers.

And which is why, if you’re in a ‘high risk’ category, it’s important to be tested regularly. Not only will you then know not to have unprotected sex, but if you’re being treated for the virus then there’s less chance of passing it on.

Sharing needles - This mostly applies to those who share needles when injecting drugs via a syringe etc.

Sharing sex toys - The virus can spread via the toy itself.

Blood transfusion - This is a huge topic in the news right now. Decades ago thousands of haemophiliacs in the UK were given blood from US prisoners who were infected with HIV. The result was they themselves contracted the virus.

Breastfeeding - It can also be passed on while giving birth.

What HIV does to your body
The first place the virus hits is the immune system. It does this by attaching itself to lymphocyte cells and then replicates itself thousands of times over. In doing so it kills off the ‘good’ lymphocyte cells. Eventually the immune system stops working altogether (it can take up to a decade for this whole process to happen).

What this means is that when you do pick up an infection or another virus such as a cold or flu, the body has no energy to fight back. Eventually most infected people succumb to the illness.

Today's treatments for HIV
These days the medical establishment is a lot more clued up on the virus - to the extent there are a number of treatments available for different stages of HIV. These can help prolong life - by up to a decade in many cases.

PEP medication can prevent infection if taken within 72 hours of contact. It can be obtained from A&E and is taken once a day for one month.

For those who are diagnosed with HIV, a blood test can tell how much of the virus you have. Alternatively a lymphocyte cell count tests the state of the immune system.  Antiretroviral drugs are then given to try and stop the virus spreading throughout the body - and which is no picnic since they interact with other non-prescription medication.

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