HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus which breaks down the body’s defences against infections. HIV particularly affects certain white blood cells, lymphocytes, which are vital to the body’s defences. When the body is infected with HIV, antibodies are formed against HIV, which is a clear sign that the virus is in the body. A person with HIV is called "HIV positive". The antibodies can keep down the level of the virus for many years, but they cannot kill the virus, partly because it is embedded in the genes of the infected cells.
When the virus multiplies, the white blood cells are destroyed. At the same time, a number of new viruses spread in the lymph organs and attack other white blood cells. Eventually, a large number of the white blood cells are destroyed by the HIV infection. This causes the body to lose much of its ability to defend itself against certain usually harmless infections and against malignant tumours. This final stage of an HIV infection is called AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It can take a long time from infection for the infected person to show any symptoms. However, the virus is multiplying in the body all the time and the person can infect others. If you have reason to believe that you have caught HIV, you must be examined by a doctor.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV can be transmitted through infected blood, sperm or vaginal secretions. It can be transmitted via unprotected intercourse, by sharing dirty needles and from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. People can also be infected via blood transfusions. However, the risk of this in Sweden is almost non-existent as all blood is tested.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
Many of those infected with HIV have no problems for several years. However, some may show signs of acute viral infection with a fever after a couple of weeks, neck ache, exhaustion, swollen lymph nodes and sometimes a skin rash. The problems disappear by themselves. After a period which may last from several months to several years, the infected person may experience one or more of the following problems: swollen lymph nodes, fungal infections in the mucous membrane of the mouth, shingles, severe night sweats, a lasting fever, coughing, major weight loss, problematic and long-lasting diarrhoea and exhaustion.
In order for a diagnosis of AIDS to be suspected, it is necessary for the person infected with HIV to get an infection which normal healthy people do not get. In Sweden, the most common is the type of pneumonia caused by the virus Pneumocystis carinii, in developing countries tuberculosis is the most common. Another disease which AIDS sufferers can get is Kaposi’s sarcoma, a vascular tumour in the skin, mucous membranes or lymph nodes.
What is the testing procedure?
In order to see whether a person is infected with HIV, the doctor takes a normal blood test, which is examined in a laboratory. The result is given after about one week. The testing is free of charge.
How is HIV/AIDS treated?
There is currently no cure for AIDS, but various antiviral drugs (drugs against viruses) can inhibit the growth of the virus in the body. Most of the infections which occur during the AIDS stage can be treated.
What about my partner?
Your current and any previous partners who may be infected must be examined. A person infected with HIV must follow the doctor's instructions in order to prevent other people from being infected.
A condom always provides good protection against HIV/AIDS. However, there is a risk of infection from unprotected anal and vaginal intercourse. There is also a risk if you get sperm or vaginal secretions in your mouth.