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HIV & AIDS: The Basics

What is AIDS?
















AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a condition believed to be caused by a virus called HIV. This virus attacks the immunesystem, the body's "security force" that fights off infections. When theimmune system breaks down, you lose this protection and can developmany serious, often deadly infections and cancers. These are calledopportunistic infections because they take advantage of the body'sweakened defenses. You have heard it said that someone "died ofAIDS": This is not entirely accurate, since it is the opportunisticinfections that cause death. AIDS is the condition that lets them takehold.

The most important things to remember, however, are that:

What is HIV?

Scientists believe that AIDS and other infections associated with it are caused by a virus known as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIVis a fragile virus that cannot survive outside of the body. This is whyyou cant be infected from toilet seats, for example, or from sharing dishes or eating utensils. But once HIV takeshold in the body, it can "hide" for months or years, doing serious damage to the immune system. This is whypeople who appear perfectly healthy may, without knowing it, be ableto transmit the virus to others. Scientists still don't know whatpercentage of people infected with the virus will develop the diseasewe know as AIDS. But it is clear thatwith proper medical treatment, people can protect themselves from deadly AIDS-related infections. Many people infected with HIV live with the virus for many years. Perhaps someday HIV illness will be likediabetes, a manageable chronic illness.

[How HIV causes AIDS]

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV can be transmitted through certain body fluids: blood, semen,vaginal secretions and breast milk. There is no evidence that the virusis transmitted through saliva, tears or sweat. HIV enters the bodythrough mucous membranes (the lining of the rectum, the walls of thevagina, or the inside of the mouth and throat) or through direct contactwith the bloodstream. The virus cannot enter through the skin, unlessthe skin is broken or cut and another persons infected body fluidsenter the blood stream. The virus cannot be transmitted through the airby sneezing or coughing. This is why there is absolutely no danger incasual contact with people with HIV.

Who can be infected with HIV?

Anyone. A virus doesn't recognize risk groups. HIV has affected gay men, lesbians, heterosexuals and bisexuals. It is found in all races,nationalities and age groups. In the U.S., gay menwere among the first people to be infected in the U.S. In Africa, forexample, HIV illness overwhelmingly affects heterosexuals. The tragic rise in AIDS cases, though, has taught us a crucial lesson. Education andsafer sex precautions do work. They are our best weapons against the virus.















Safer sex and how to use a condom

Since we know that the virus is transmitted by body fluids enteringanother body, the best way to prevent infection is to block thatentrance. Latex condoms (rubbers) have been proven to be the mosteffective prevention against HIV infection. Lambskin and other "naturalmembrane" condoms are not as good as latex. They may allow HIV topass through. The use of spermicidal (sperm-killing) lubricants,especially those with nonoxynol-9, may increase your protection. Butthey should always be used with a condom and never instead of acondom. Condoms still provide the greatest protection, and relieve you ofthe worry about the risk involved. Both men and women should learnhow to use condoms properly. Make them an integral part of sex andnot an embarrassing, fumbling intermission. Performing oral sex, though far less risky than anal or vaginal sex, can also transmit HIV.















In oral sex with women, dental dams may be used. A dental dam is asix-inch square piece of thin latex that's available in dental and medicalsupply stores. You can make a home-made dam by cutting a rolledcondom to the center and opening it up, or by using plastic wrap. (However, neither has been tested for protection against HIV.) Thedam should cover the entire vulva and should be held at both edges. Be careful not to turn the dam inside-out during oral sex, since this willtotally defeat the purpose. Dental dams can also be used for oral-analsex by both men and women, to help prevent other sexually trasmitted diseases. Remember: Never re-use condoms ordental dams!

How HIV-infection happens

You have heard that people in "high-risk groups" can get HIV. But it'snot who you are, it's what you do. High-risk behavior will leave youopen to HIV infection, no matter who you are.

High-risk behavior is:

Having unprotected anal or vaginal sex with someone who is infected. (Unprotected means without a latex condom.) Although it's easier for the receptive partner to be infected, research has shown that the virus can also move in the opposite direction, infecting the insertive partner. Therefore, it doesn't matter if you're a "top" or "bottom," man or woman, you can be infected without protection.

Unprotected, receptive anal sex appears to be the most common route of sexual transmission.

Oral sex is less risky, but it is possible to become infected orally.

Sharing needles with an infected person or injecting any substance with an unsterile needle is probably the most direct way to become infected. (Sex partners of people who shoot drugs are also at greater risk if they have unprotected sex.)

IV drug users should never share needles, works or cookers. Many places in the U.S. now have needle exchange programs, which offer clean needles to protect drug users from HIV. If you have to share injection paraphernalia, clean them.

Donating blood in the U.S. is absolutely safe!Needles used to take blood are sterile and individually packaged. They are also destroyed after use. Although there have been cases ofinfection in the past, it is now nearly impossible to become infectedwith HIV by receiving blood via a transfusion. Screening procedures todetect infected blood have been in place for several years. Receiving transfusions, too, puts you at virtually no risk for HIV at the present time.

The only other way to get HIV is to be born with the virus. It can betransmitted before or at birth from the infected mother to her child, orthrough breastfeeding. You cannot be infected with HIV throughcasual contact such as touching, using public facilities like toilets andphones, or sharing eating utensils and food. Living with HIV-infected people poses no risk unless you have unprotected sex withthem or share needles.

Keeping your body in top shape can help keep your immune systemstrong. Diet, how much rest you get ans stress can all affect your health when you have HIV. If you don't already have a doctor who isfamiliar with your medical history, get one. Talk to him or her if you havequestions about your health. Call the GMHC Hotline at (212) 807-6655/TTY (212) 645-7470 for referrals to doctors with experience in treating HIV, or for information about how to obtain health care if you are HIV positive.

You can help yourself and those you love by learning as much as you canabout HIV and AIDS. People with HIV illness are notpeople waiting to die, but people living with their disease andcontinuing to make contributions to society. They are not "victims." They are simply people with HIV illness. There are no unusualprecautions to be taken when around an HIV-infected person sincecasual contact does not spread the virus.















One of the most important things you can do for a person with HIV illness is tobe a friend. Treat him or her exactly as you would want to be treatedunder the same circumstances. Spread education, not fear. Talkabout HIV and AIDS with your friends, loved ones and coworkers. Make sure that they know the facts. Work to fight discriminationagainst people with HIV illness either publicly or privately. Volunteer ata local AIDS organization or make a contribution. We all have a part to play in stopping thespread of HIV. No one else can do it, and the time to start is now.


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