HIV Infection & AIDS

HIV and its Transmission

HIV is a fragile virus. It primarily infects a group of white blood cells that manage the operations of the immune system. But it can also infect cells in the nervous system, colon, and blood vessels.

Nobody "catches" HIV infection the way people "catch" a cold. HIV does not survive long enough outside the body to be caught from the air, or in water, or off objects and surfaces. It is transmitted by semen, blood and blood products, and vaginal and cervical secretions. HIV is not transmitted by saliva, sweat, tears, or urine.

HIV can be transmitted 1) by particular kinds of sexual contact; 2) by direct exposure to infected blood; and 3) from an HIV infected woman to her fetus during pregnancy or childbirth or, possibly, to her infant during breast feeding.

1. Sexual Contact

Anal and Vaginal Intercourse: HIV is more likely to be transmitted by unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse than by other sexual activities. Anal intercourse (penis in anus) is more likely to allow HIV transmission, because HIV can attach itself to cells in the lower rectum. HIV may be easier to transmit to the receptive partner than to the insertive partner. However, an intact latex condom, properly used, substantially reduces the risk of transmitting HIV during anal or vaginal intercourse. Condoms offer little protection against HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), Herpes and Chlamydia- especially for females.

Oral Sex (oral-genital contact): The risk of acquiring HIV infection by performing oral sex on a man (fellatio) is uncertain. There seems to be some risk, but it is clearly much lower than the risk of vaginal or anal intercourse. Since pre-ejaculatory fluid ("pre-cum") may contain HIV, it is not necessarily any safer to stop before the man ejaculates. The chance of acquiring HIV by performing oral sex on a woman (cunnilingus) is not precisely known, but also seems small. Whether you are a woman or man, the risk of contracting HIV by having oral sex performed on you seems extremely low.

Kissing: Although HIV is very rarely present in the saliva of people with HIV infection, there is absolutely no evidence that kissing can transmit the virus. No case of HIV infection has been traced to exposure to saliva in any circumstances.

There is no chance of transmitting HIV through sexual activities that do not include direct contact of semen, vaginal secretions, or blood with mucous membranes. Touching; stroking; massage; and masturbation, alone or with a partner, do not transmit HIV but can transfer 'skin-to-skin' transmitted diseases like HPV, herpes or molluscum.

2. Blood

Needle Sharing: No matter what substance is in the needle, if you share needles with others, you may be directly exposed to their blood. People share needles for intravenous drug use (such as heroin and crack), and for shooting anabolic steroids to build bulk and power for athletic performance. HIV may also be transmitted if needles are "shared" when used for tattooing, ear piercing, or acupuncture. Hepatitis B&C can also be transmitted by needle sharing.

Blood and blood transfusions: HIV has been transmitted in blood and blood products used in the medical treatment of hemophilia, injuries, and serious illnesses. The combination of screening donors and testing blood has reduced the risk of acquiring HIV through blood transfusion to minimal levels.

Accidents in health care: A small number of health care workers who participated in the care of people with HIV infection have also acquired HIV. Usually, they were infected as a result of injuries involving needles containing the blood of people with HIV infection.

3. Mother to Infant

Women who have HIV infection can transmit the virus to their babies. Most of these infections seem to occur during pregnancy, but some may happen during the birth process. A few babies may have been infected through breast feeding.

Remember: HIV is NOT transmitted by casual contact...

You can reduce your risk of acquiring HIV by:

Making careful choices about sexual activity
Not having anal, vaginal, or oral sexual intercourse provides 100% protection against the sexual transmission of HIV.

Communicating assertively with your sexual partner and negotiating for safer sexual practices
Talking about sex can seem embarrassing and uncomfortable. Telling the truth about your sexual past may be difficult. Communicating assertively about your desires in a sexual relationship is a real challenge.

Develop skills to express your feelings and concerns
Consider in advance what you would say and do in particular situations. Asking a partner about past sexual experiences may be helpful, too, but you should not rely on that information alone. It is much safer to take precautions with every partner.

Removing alcohol and drugs from sexual activity
Alcohol and other drugs may make sexual activity seem easier; they may alleviate uncertainty, anxiety, and ambivalence, but they can eliminate decision making too. Remember, SUI (Sex Under the Influence) is dangerous just as DUI (Driving Under the Influence) is dangerous. Drunk sex is rarely safer sex.

Using latex condoms for intercourse
A latex condom should be used anytime you engage in anal or vaginal intercourse. Animal membrane (skin) condoms cannot be counted on. Condoms are not perfect, and they do not provide "safe sex." Nonetheless, a latex condom provides high levels of protection against the transmission of HIV if used properly.

Not sharing needles
Whether you use a needle to inject drugs or steroids, never share a needle used by someone else. If you use needles to inject drugs or steroids, consider seeking help, and also learning how to clean needles to reduce the likelihood of acquiring HIV.