Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that destroys your immune system, causing life-threatening infections and cancers, therefore leading to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
It has been about 30 years since HIV was discovered as the cause of AIDS. Back in the days when HIV/AIDS was first discovered, it was a total mystery. No one knew how it happened and no treatment was available. It was basically a death sentence, and people died within weeks or months after being diagnosed.
We have come a long way since then. People who have been diagnosed with HIV today can live a normal healthy life like anyone else. By taking a combination of anti-reviral medications and close monitoring by HIV physicians, the number of HIV patients who develop AIDS have been reduced significantly. HIV infection can also be prevented now by taking medications (they are called PrEP and PEP). Because of this, some people may take it for granted. Some may not take it seriously, and think that there is little need to be concerned. They fail to realise that there are more than 1 million people in the world who are infected with HIV, and more than 50,000 people become newly infected each year!
Yes, treatment works. But even with our advanced technology and knowledge in medicine, there is still no cure to HIV. No vaccines have been successfully developed against HIV yet, even after 30 years. Therefore, it all comes down to prevention.
Before we talk about prevention, let us again look at how HIV is transmitted. By understanding how it is transmitted, we can work out ways to prevent transmission. HIV passes from one person to another through body fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal fluids.
- Sexual intercourse, the most common route of HIV transmission
- Sharing of needles and injection drug use
- Blood transfusion
- Needle-stick injury
- HIV transmission from infected mother to newborn
What can we do to prevent HIV transmission?
Preventing sexual transmission
- Use of condoms, including female condoms (although condoms are not 100%, they reduce transmission rate significantly)
- Limit the number of sexual partners
- Sex education to spread awareness
- Treating other sexually transmitted infections
Preventing HIV transmission through blood
- Don’t inject drugs
- But if you do, do not share needles. Only use sterile drug injection equipment.
- Screening blood products (most countries are already doing this)
- Prevent needle-stick injuries
Preventing mother to child transmission
- Testing mother for HIV and offering treatment if tested positive
Preventing transmission of HIV from HIV positive individuals
Appropriate treatment for HIV positive patients plays an important role in preventing HIV transmission. With early treatment and good compliance to HIV medicine, HIV level becomes so low that it is undetectable in the blood. This not only save lives, it also reduces the risk of spreading HIV to their sexual partners.
HIV medicine can also be used to prevent HIV transmission in other situations. People who are at increased risk of HIV infection can take a HIV pill called Truvada as a daily dose to reduce the risk of being infected with HIV. This is also known as Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
HIV treatment known as post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP, is a combination of anti-retroviral medications that can be taken after a potential exposure to HIV. If taken within 72 hours post-exposure, they can reduce the chances of being infected with HIV significantly.
When it comes to treatment and prevention of HIV, the most important thing that one can do is to get an HIV test. Rapid HIV testing is available these days. In Singapore we have anonymous HIV testing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least a yearly HIV screening for people considered at high risk for infection. This is especially important for young people from ages 13 to 24, because more than half in that age group who tested positive for HIV did not know that they had been infected.
Some people are afraid of getting tested because they fear the possibility of being HIV positive. Some feel embarrassed about it. HIV stigma and discrimination that still exist in our community have perpetuated this problem. The truth is, the earlier HIV is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. Therefore, do not be afraid of getting tested. This not only protects yourself, it also protects your family, your sexual partners and your loved ones.