Frequently Asked Questions

What is HIV and what is AIDS?

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HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that weakens the immune system. It attacks and takes over the immune cells, using them to reproduce itself and go on to infect other cells. It is primarily transmitted in blood, semen and vaginal fluids via condomless sex or sharing injecting equipment. HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is not a single disease. It is a diagnosis that results from a spectrum of conditions that can occur when a person’s immune system is seriously damaged after years of attack by HIV. The terms HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable, but it is possible to move in and out of an AIDS diagnosis. It is important to remember that a person who is infected with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. However, all people with AIDS have HIV.

HIV damages the body’s immune system and renders the body vulnerable to other diseases and infections – its symptoms are most commonly similar to those of any chronic viral infection. During advanced stages of HIV infection, a person may develop any of a number of opportunistic infections considered to be AIDS defining illnesses.

Who is at risk of HIV?

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Sexual transmission remains the largest cause of HIV transmissions in Victoria. Amongst particular populations, Victoria has effectively contained or eliminated mother to child transmission rates as well as infection rates amongst injecting drug users, sex workers and those receiving blood transfusions.

Condomless anal and vaginal sex remains the most common way that HIV is transmitted however the majority of new HIV infections are amongst men who have sex with men. Although it must be pointed out that rates amongst heterosexual individuals is slowly on the rise.

So therefore everyone who engages in condomless penetrative sex and does not utilise biomedical prevention interventions, such as Pre-Exposure Phrophylaxis, is potentially at risk of contracting HIV.

How is HIV transmitted?

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The ability of HIV to live outside the body is very limited and therefore HIV is not particularly easy to transmit. It is a communicable disease, but it is not contagious like air-borne viruses such as influenza. HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, coughing or sneezing.

There are three main modes of HIV transmission:

  • Condomless unprotected anal and vaginal sexual intercourse;
  • Sharing drug injecting equipment; and
  • Mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.

What are the treatments for HIV?

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HIV treatment has greatly improved. Studies have shown that there is a real benefit to early treatment, the earlier the better. It is a personal decision though, and perhaps the most important factor to consider is whether you are ready to start treatment. There are a variety of effective drugs that are easy to take, meaning that treating HIV has never been simpler, and will make a real difference to your health and wellbeing. For more information visit TreatHIVnow..

What does taking HIV treatment involve?

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Taking HIV treatments usually involves taking one pill a day, however depending on several factors, such as how long you have had HIV and what treatments you may have already had, you may have to take two or more pills maybe once or twice a day. Your doctor will be able to explain what is involved in taking medication, but the important point is that you take the medications as prescribed so that no adverse reactions occur such as resistance, whereby the medications stop working and the immune system can become compromised.

What does having HIV mean in the long term?

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HIV is now a manageable chronic condition. It is no longer associated with life threatening illnesses and death the way it was many years ago. This is because there have been enormous advances in HIV treatments. Someone who becomes HIV positive and decides to start treatment earlier rather than later can live a long and healthy life.

How many people in Australia have HIV?

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There are roughly 27,000 people living with HIV in Australia. HIV rates have remained relatively stable over the past few years, hovering around the 1,000 notifications per year mark. 

Whilsy everyone is potentially at risk from HIV, it has impacted on various populations differently. Historically and even today, men who have sex with men make up the majority of these new notifications, however this changes when you look at each state or territory separately. For example, in Western Australia, the proportion is roughly 50% heterosexual and 50% male to male sex.

In relation to the diagnoses of AIDS in Australia, the pattern is similar to that of Victoria. For example, peaking around 1987 then slowly dropping to their lowest point around 1999.