HIV – what exactly is it?

HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that weakens the immune system, making it vulnerable to opportunistic diseases that could otherwise be easily cured. The phase of the disease when the immune system is too weak is called AIDS.

What is the difference between AIDS and HIV?

HIV is the name of the virus that can infect people. AIDS is a stage of infection where opportunistic diseases develop, and after which the person dies if not treated.

Is there a cure for HIV?

No, there is no cure. There are treatments that stop the infection, the viral load (the amount of virus in the blood) becomes undetectable, the virus can no longer replicate itself, and thus allow the immune system (CD4 cells) to take over.

A person with HIV who is on treatment has a similar life expectancy to another person, although there is a higher prevalence of certain cancers in people with HIV after several years of treatment.

However, it is possible to reduce these risks by adopting a healthy lifestyle. It must also be said that treatment is often expensive, which can affect the quality of life of people living with HIV (PHAs).

In the past, there were many possible side effects to the various medications available to PLWHs, as well as many possible interactions with other medications. Now, most of the time, there are no or almost no side effects or drug interactions, thanks to new molecules such as Biktarvy, which is a once-a-day oral medication.

What is “undetectable”?

When a PLWH is on treatment, his or her viral load becomes undetectable on blood tests after a while. The person can no longer transmit the virus. So it’s safe to have sex with an HIV-positive person who is on treatment and undetectable.

What if I need HIV treatment but can’t afford it?

It is important to discuss this with your doctor. For example, there are programs such as Gilead Pharmaceuticals’ Max program, which provides assistance with paying the insurance deductible at the pharmacy. There are also many community organizations that may be able to help you. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. There are often solutions available.

How can I protect myself from HIV?

There are ways: PREP, condoms, treatment. PREP is a drug called Truvada, which prevents the HIV virus from infecting the cells of the human body. This drug works a bit like an oral vaccine. There is no risk of transmission when PREP is taken correctly.

You can take PrEP in two different ways:

  • Continuous PrEP, which involves taking antiretrovirals every day to reduce the risk of HIV infection.
  • Intermittent PrEP, which involves taking two pills between 2 and 24 hours before risky sex and then one pill 24 and 48 hours after sex.

Condoms provide a physical barrier between you and your partner and provide good protection against transmission.

Finally, treatment of an HIV-positive partner is not to be excluded from the means of prevention, since it prevents transmission when he or she has an undetectable viral load measured every 4 months.

What should I do if I am worried about being infected by the HIV virus?

Contact an STI clinic immediately or call 811 to find out where to go within 3 days (or as soon as possible) of having risky sex.

You have 3 days to go to a clinic and ask for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This is a treatment that you should take as soon as possible. So don’t delay if you’re worried – prevention is better than long-term treatment!

PEP is 80% effective. However, most of the time, when an infection occurs despite taking PEP, it is because of poor compliance with the treatment. Be sure to follow your health care provider’s instructions.

How is HIV transmitted?

The AIDS virus is found in body fluids, but not all of them are equally likely to be transmitted. For example, you cannot get HIV through saliva, sweat, tears, vomit, coughing, sneezing, insect bites or urine.

However, blood, semen, seminal fluid (precum), vaginal secretions, anal fluid and breast milk have a high potential for contamination, unless of course the HIV-positive person is on treatment and undetectable. If the person is undetectable, the amount of virus in these biological fluids will be so low that transmission will be impossible.

HIV can also be transmitted through syringe needles, for example among drug users. All medical, injection and piercing equipment must be properly disinfected before use to avoid the risk of infection.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

A person who gets the HIV virus may not have symptoms for several years. However, the absence of symptoms does not mean that there is no problem and that the virus is inactive. As soon as the virus enters the body, it begins to replicate, invade the entire body, hide in reservoirs and weaken the immune system by infecting the body’s CD4 cells (immune system cells).

In the weeks following an infection, the primary infection sometimes occurs. Most of the time, the symptoms are similar to those of the flu. Nodes may swell, rashes may appear, and ulcerations of the mouth or genital mucosa may occur.

After a few weeks, the symptoms of primary infection disappear without treatment. However, this does not mean that the virus has left the body. Without treatment, HIV will progress to disease as the virus overcomes the immune system.

How do I know if I am HIV positive?

The only way to find out is to get tested. It is not possible to detect the infection through specific symptoms. The test must be done 6 weeks after the risk of contamination in the case of a blood test, and 3 months after the risk of contamination for a self-test or a rapid test.

Sources: What are the symptoms of HIV? | Plate-Forme Prévention Sida (preventionsida.org)

What is HIV? CATIE – Canada’s source for information on HIV and hepatitis C