AIDS is a disease that leads to a sudden drop in the immune system's defenses. It is transmitted by a virus called HIV. AIDS and HIV have been on the decline in Canada since the late 90s. However, it is still very important to protect yourself during sexual intercourse, because HIV is a sexually transmitted infection. There is currently no effective cure for HIV, but with proper treatment, people with HIV can live healthy lives for many years.
What is HIV/AIDS?
AIDS is a disease that is transmitted by a virus, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. HIV attacks the cells in the blood that allow the body to defend itself. In some people, no symptoms develop even though they have HIV.
Because some people are asymptomatic, HIV can only be detected through testing. For this, it is necessary to take a blood test. If the virus is present in the blood, then the person is considered HIV positive.
When HIV attacks the immune system, it can cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. Without medical treatment, almost all HIV-positive people develop the first signs of AIDS 8 to 10 years after becoming infected.
There are 3 phases of HIV infection when a person does not have access to medication for treatment.
Phase 1 - primary infection: HIV progresses rapidly in the first few weeks after infection. The risk of transmission is particularly high during this phase. Then the body's immune system defends itself and the first signs of the disease disappear. However, the virus continues to evolve unnoticed.
Phase 2- latency: the person lives with general symptoms or no symptoms. This phase lasts for several years, during which time HIV-positive people can lead a normal life without realizing that they are infected. The immune system will gradually weaken, and symptoms of illness will begin to appear (skin disease, swollen lymph nodes, etc.).
Phase 3 - AIDS: the immune system can no longer prevent disease. The range of diseases contracted is wide. It can include cancers, pneumonia, etc.
How is the disease transmitted?
Contrary to misconceptions, it is not possible to contract HIV simply by being around someone who is HIV positive. The virus is only transmitted when a person's blood comes into contact with the blood, semen, vaginal secretions or breast milk of an infected person.
The virus is not present in the saliva or on the skin of an HIV-positive person. This means that they can safely shake hands, hug or kiss other people.
HIV-positive people can transmit the virus primarily through unprotected sex, pregnancy and sharing inhalation or injection equipment.
Transmission during unprotected sex
It is important to protect yourself with a condom during vaginal and anal penetration. Transmission can also occur through the sharing of sex toys.
As for oral sex, the risks are lower. But it is safer to use a condom for oral sex and a dental dam for cunnilingus.
Transmission during pregnancy
An HIV-positive person can transmit the virus to his or her child at the time of delivery and during breastfeeding.
Transmission through sharing of inhalation or injection equipment
Infected needles and the sharing of straws and pipes pose a high risk of contamination.
It is important to know that it is possible that an HIV-positive person undergoing treatment can no longer transmit the virus. UNAIDS reminds us that HIV treatments are extremely effective. And we have enough evidence now to know that "people living with HIV with undetectable viral loads cannot transmit HIV sexually.”
The UNAIDS message is clear: undetectable = non-transmissible.
What are the health consequences of HIV?
It is possible for a person to live with HIV without experiencing symptoms for years. However, in the period after contracting the virus, a person may experience flu-like symptoms. These include fever, sore throat, headache, swollen glands, muscle pain and joint pain.
They usually appear 2 to 4 weeks after contact with the virus. They then disappear after 1 to 3 weeks, but the virus continues to spread in the body.
When in doubt, it is very important to get screened. It is also possible to transmit HIV without knowing it. In general, screening for sexually transmitted infections can be done on a regular basis. This is true even when you are in a stable and/or monogamous relationship.
Testing for HIV status can be done with a blood test 3 to 4 weeks after coming into contact with the virus. But if you think you've been in a high-risk situation, talk to health care specialists by calling 811 for example. There is a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. This treatment is taken within 72 hours of exposure.
There is currently no vaccine to protect against the virus. The best protection remains prevention by avoiding risky situations and screening.
And while treatments for HIV are very effective, they do not completely remove the virus from the body. However, people who have access to medical treatment can live long and healthy lives. Medications can slow down the disease and even stop it.
LOVE supports youth to thrive through programs and healthy relationships that build emotional intelligence and help overcome the challenges they face. Our participants emerge from LOVE’s programs with greater resilience, heightened skills, and the confidence to be inspirational leaders.