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Living with HIV requires taking care of yourself and taking extra precautions to ensure your health, such as preventing STDs and other infections. Learn how to practice a healthy lifestyle to better manage HIV.

Fast Facts

  • HIV is a virus that spreads through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, the HIV virus will destroy many of these cells, that the body will not be able to fight off infections or illnesses anymore.

What is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus, HIV is a virus that attacks our body’s natural defence (immune system) against illness. HIV can lead to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is a serious and fatal disease. HIV is transmitted via blood, semen and pre-cum, breast milk, vaginal fluids and rectal fluids.

If HIV is not treated, it usually leads to death.

Fortunately, HIV is not as easy to transmit as the flu is, and its transmission can be prevented relatively easily.

Can HIV be cured?

There is no cure for HIV, but a continuous antiretroviral treatment is able to suppress the viral load which means that people living with HIV are able to live a long, healthy and normal lives.

What is a virus?

A virus is an organism that is so small it is invisible to the human eye. There are many types of human viruses, and not all of them affect us in the same way. For example, the flu is caused by the influenza virus; this virus can be transmitted through the air when we cough or sneeze. There are also viruses that are transmitted through food, which can upset the stomach.

What are CD4 cells?

CD-4 cell is a type of white blood cell that play a role in the human immune system.

This is one of the cells that is attacked by the HIV virus, and a person’s CD4-count, i.e. the number of CD4 cells per mm3 of blood, gives an indication of the health of one’s immune system.

In the past, CD4 count was an important marker that indicated whether a person with HIV was entitled to antiretroviral treatment or not—but nowadays it is recommended to provide immediate for everyone treatment with HIV regardless of their CD4 counts.

What is the HIV life cycle?

HIV attacks and destroys the CD4 cells of the immune system. HIV uses CD4 cells to replicate. Each infected CD4 cell produces hundreds of new copies of new HIV particles.

What are the body fluids that transmit HIV from one person to another

Body fluids that contain and are able to transmit HIV include:

  • blood
  • semen and sperm, including pre-cum
  • fluids that exist in the female vagina
  • fluids that are secreted in the rectum
  • breast milk

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How does HIV affect the human body?

HIV attacks the immune system by gradually killing these cells and taking over their machinery for replication. After some time, the immune system will wear down and start to become less efficient. As a result, diseases and infections, some of which usually have little success in attacking the body, may find an open window through which they can do their damage.

People infected with HIV die after their immune system is defeated by the HIV virus and this is defined as the AIDS stage. The process of the HIV virus gradually attacking one’s immune system may take many years and most times, the person with this virus may not show symptoms of this disease and will continue to infect others through risky and unprotective behaviours.

What is AIDS?

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome; it’s also called advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV. AIDS is a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV. A person is said to have AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and they develop certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death. Fewer people develop AIDS now because treatment for HIV means that more people are staying well.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

When a person is infected with HIV, they may look well and feel as healthy as any other person. But without treatment and after continued attacks by HIV on the immune system, the person may develop illnesses and symptoms and become weak. At this point, the HIV infection has progressed into the AIDS stage. This process can take between 3 and 10 years from the moment of initial infection, depending on several factors. A person with HIV may show no physical symptoms of any disease for a long time. This stage of infection is called “asymptomatic” (meaning, no symptoms). As HIV continues to gradually destroy the immune system, a person may develop certain illnesses related to HIV infection. Having a number of these specific illnesses together means the HIV infection has become “symptomatic” and becomes visible as AIDS. If a person with symptomatic HIV, or AIDS, has no access to medicines, care and support, they will most likely eventually die of illness. A person can often lead a normal life without knowing that they are infected with HIV. It is therefore easy to understand how someone may, without knowing it, transmit HIV to others. HIV also makes a person more vulnerable to other STIs.

How long will it take before a person with HIV to progress to the AIDS stage?

Depending on a person’s physical and mental health as well as other factors, including the extent to which a person with HIV has support and a healthy lifestyle with plenty of rest, sports, proper nutrition and peace of mind, it can take many years to develop AIDS, if at all. From the point of initial infection, it can take between 5 and 10 years.

However, scientists recently discovered a new subtype of HIV, called CRF19, which develops from HIV into AIDS three times faster, at around three years after infection.

Fortunately, with the increased availability of HIV treatment, if a person with HIV is under medical supervision and promptly starts treatment with antiretroviral medicines, they can live a long and healthy life.

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How long can a person with AIDS survive without treatment?

When a person who has entered the AIDS stage does not have access to appropriate antiretroviral medicines and medical care. He or she can succumb to AIDS within 12 – 18 months.

When a person has access to medical care and antiretroviral medicines, most people with HIV will be able to live a normal life.

With increasing access to antiretroviral medicines, more people with AIDS are successful in suppressing their viral load levels and boosting up their immune system, returning to the asymptomatic stage of their HIV infection and living long and healthy lives.

Is it possible to see whether a person has HIV?

No one can see or feel from the outside whether a person has HIV. There are no characteristics or symptoms. Many people have misconceptions about this. They think people with HIV are particularly thin or that their skin looks different. The only way to know whether anyone is infected is with a clinical test (blood or saliva test)

Who gets HIV?

Anybody who is exposed to the virus can become infected.

Typically, exposure occurs during risky behaviour. But risky behaviour refers to a range of activities, from unprotected sex to the re-use of a syringe or the distribution of unchecked blood transfusions. Many people think that people who look overweight, healthy or are of a higher social class cannot contract HIV or that only poor people, sex workers and drug users get HIV. This is not true as the virus does not choose who to infect.

HIV is transmitted through these risky behaviours, and people who engage in these behaviours can be exposed to HIV and become infected (including through blood transfusion, if the blood supply is not properly screened for HIV, but this is rare these days). Therefore, HIV is not related to class, looks, age, education level, profession, ethnicity or anything else.

The only exception to this is with babies, who can become infected from their HIV-positive mothers without engaging in any risk behaviour.

What are some misconceptions about HIV?

Myths and misconceptions are wrong understanding about HIV. For instance, is sometimes wrongly assumed that HIV is due to a curse or demonic possession or that it can only affect LGBT, sex workers or other “sinful” people. This is of course unfounded as HIV can affect anyone who is sexually active or shares needles and even from infected mother to child. hese should be dispelled based on the facts given so far.

What is the difference between HIV 1 and HIV 2?

HIV-1 and HIV-2 are two distinct viruses. Worldwide, the predominant, earliest and most commonly referred to virus is HIV-1.

HIV-1 accounts for around 95% of all infections worldwide. HIV tests usually are sensitive to both types of viruses. The relatively uncommon HIV-2 virus is concentrated in West Africa, but has been seen in other countries. It is less infectious and progresses more slowly than HIV-1, resulting in fewer deaths. While many commonly used antiretroviral drugs are active against HIV-2, non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) like nevirapine and efavirenz do not work against it.

The best strategy with which to treat HIV-2 has generally been less clearly defined than HIV-1.

What is viral load?

A person’s viral load refers to the amount of HIV virus in the bloodstream.

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