What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV is a virus that targets a person’s immune system, the same system that helps to combat illness and infections in the body. Damage to the immune system results in a progressive illness that makes one more susceptible to bacteria and illness. Once the disease has progressed past a certain point, it is then classified as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
Contracting HIV/AIDS requires the entry of the HIV virus particles into the body. Due to characteristics of the virus, it cannot be transmitted through the air or everyday contact such as shaking hands and sneezing. The virus can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of an infected individual, these fluids include: blood, pre-ejaculate, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Therefore, unprotected sexual encounters and sharing of needles are the among the highest risk factors for HIV.
HIV symptoms vary greatly depending on the stage of the disease. Newly infected individuals will experience a “primary infection” including symptoms such as: fever, headache, sore throat and swollen lymph glands. Many times the primary HIV infection goes unnoticed, however it is during this time that the virus is spread most efficiently. Following primary infection, patients undergo a “latent” period where there are no symptoms. This period can last from 8-10 years. As the disease progresses and slowly attacks your immune systems, individuals can start to notice an increase in the frequency of illness or bacterial infections. One is classified as having AIDS once the immune system has sustained sufficient damage. At this time, the individual will be at a very high risk of developing fatal infections due to lack of a properly functioning immune system.
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for HIV, however there are many ways to either minimize your risk of contracting the disease and manage symptoms if infected. You minimize your risk by always practicing “safe” sexual activities by proper use of condoms and other barrier devices. Additionally, if you are injecting drugs or steroids, avoid sharing or reusing needles and other equipment. Treatments for those with HIV/AIDS often include antiretrovirals, which help suppress the virus, causing the progressive of the disease to occur less quickly and increase quality of life.
In 2011, it was estimated that about 71,300 people in Canada were infected with HIV with 76.7% being male. On average approximately 2300-4000 people become newly infected with HIV per year in Canada. According to the Government of Canada (2011), men who have sex with men are amongst the highest risk of contracting the disease and accounted for 46.6% of new infections in 2011. An additional 13.7% of new infections were also reported by those who identified as injection drug users.