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What is HIV?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that can infect humans and cause disease. HIV attacks the body's immune system, the system that helps us fight off germs like bacteria and other viruses. Specifically, HIV attacks a type of immune system cells called CD4 T-cells. Without those cells, people are particularly vulnerable to certain types of infections and illnesses.

What is AIDS?

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. When an individual is first diagnosed with AIDS, the virus has severely weakened the immune system, making them more likely to get certain infections and illnesses. Anti-HIV treatment (discussed below) can decrease the chances of getting these infections and illnesses; individuals not receiving treatment can become very sick and in danger of dying. Once a person is diagnosed with AIDS, that person is considered to have AIDS, even if that individual receives treatment and becomes less likely to get those infections.

An electron micrograph image of HIV viruses (in green) emerging from an infected immune cell.

What are the symptoms of an HIV infection?

Right after individuals are infected with HIV, many experience flu-like symptoms, such as fevers, muscle aches, headaches, and rashes. These symptoms can last for 2-4 weeks and then go away.

After that, HIV can lie dormant for several years. During this time period, individuals often appear and feel healthy, and they have no outward signs of infection or illness. Even though there are no symptoms, the virus is still at work, slowly destroying the body's immune system.

Finally, if left untreated, HIV can slowly progress into AIDS. The severely weakened immune system leaves individuals vulnerable to many different types of infections, such as lung infections, fungal infections, blood cancers, and Tuberculosis. Symptoms can vary widely, as these infections can affect virtually every part of the body.

The beginning of the AIDS era is marked by a report published about a group of five young, gay men in Los Angeles in 1981; these men had a rare lung infection. Similar reports began appearing around the country and around the globe within a few years.  The HIV virus was first identified in 1983.

How do you test for HIV and AIDS?

There are many different ways to test for HIV. Some tests look for the presence of antibodies; antibodies are special markers the immune system makes in response to infections, and these tests can measure antibodies made in response to HIV. Other tests look for specific parts of the HIV virus itself; some tests look for certain proteins on the virus, while others look for the genetic material of the virus. Some of these tests are done with a blood draw, others require just a finger prick, and still others use swabs of oral fluids. Each test variation has a different accuracy, time to get results, and cost. Here at U-TEST, we use a finger prick test that looks for antibodies to HIV, and takes just a couple of minutes to administer; check out the “Getting Tested” page to learn more about the test we use.

How do you monitor HIV and AIDS over time?

For individuals that are HIV positive, two lab tests are commonly used to monitor the progression of their disease over time: A viral load test looks at the number of virus particles (specifically the virus’s genetic material) in an individual’s blood. A CD4 T-cell count measures the number of CD4 T-cells in an individual’s body. CD4 counts are particularly important for individuals who have advanced HIV infections. Individuals who have a CD4 count below 200 are diagnosed with AIDS.


Is HIV contagious?

Yes. HIV is spread through contact with certain bodily fluids from a person who is infected with HIV. Blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk are all known to transmit HIV from an infected individual to a non-infected individual. HIV can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy and delivery. HIV cannot be transmitted through kissing, hugging, or touching something someone with HIV has touched.

The most common way HIV is transmitted in the US today is through sexual contact. HIV is also commonly spread through sharing needles and other drug injection equipment.

Is HIV curable?

No. Scientists and researchers around the world are working to find a cure for HIV, but there is no cure yet.

Is HIV preventable?

Yes. There are risk reduction strategies you can use to help prevent the spread of HIV. Here are some strategies we recommend:

  • Get tested regularly for HIV. Check out the "Getting Tested" page for more information on how we test here at U-TEST!

  • Know your partners' HIV status - encourage them to come get tested with us as well!

  • Use protection during sex. Condoms, if used correctly, can be very effective in preventing the transmission of HIV.

  • Ask your partners about their HIV status, and make a plan with them based on your status and theirs.

  • Get tested and treated for other sexually transmitted infections. Untreated STIs increase your risk of contracting or transmitting HIV.

  • Avoid sharing needles. There are needle exchanges throughout Seattle; click here to learn more.

Certain people may be interested in Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a medication that HIV negative individuals take each day to reduce their risk of contracting HIV. Individuals who have an HIV positive partner, for example, may be interested in taking PrEP. More information about PrEP can be found here.

Is HIV treatable?

Yes. HIV is treatable with medications called antiretrovirals. Treatment with antiretrovirals is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). The medications reduce the amount of virus in a person's body, which helps to maintain a healthy immune system and to prevent the HIV infection from progressing to AIDS.

ART almost always involves taking a combination of medications every day for the rest of your life. When people follow their ART regimen, their viral load test often shows that the HIV virus is undetectable in their body. These individuals are considered virally suppressed. The immune system is healthy, and risk of transmitting HIV to a non-infected person is significantly reduced. As long as these individuals continue on ART, they can lead normal, healthy lives. In fact, over the past 10 years, the life expectancy of people who are HIV positive is the same as people who are HIV negative.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was created to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic and to encourage federal funding for development of treatments for AIDS. The quilt, displayed here in 1987 in Washington DC, is made of personalized tributes to individuals who died of AIDS. By the end of 1987, over 41,000 Americans had died of AIDS.

World AIDS Day (December 1) was first designated in 1988 and has taken place every year since. By the mid-1990s, more drugs were introduced that became increasingly effective in keeping the infection at bay. These advancements might not have happened if not for the work of activist groups like ACT UP. Since the beginning of the AIDS era in 1981, approximately 675,000 people have died of AIDS in the US alone.

How many people have HIV?

It is estimated that 1.1 million people in the US are HIV positive. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that 1 in 7 people who are HIV positive do not know they are positive. In 2015, more than 39,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the US. In the past 10 years, the rate of new HIV infections has decreased. 

In King County, rates of new HIV diagnoses are also decreasing. In 2015, there were 11.6 new diagnoses of HIV per 100,000 people. The number of people living with diagnosed HIV is 344.4 per 100,000 people.

Globally, it is estimated that there are around 37 million people who are HIV positive. Unfortunately, only 18 million of those people are connected to care and receiving ART. There were an estimated 2.1 million new infections worldwide in 2015.

Where can I learn more?

There are several great online resources with more information about HIV and AIDS.

  • Click here for general information about HIV and AIDS on a national level

  • Click here for information about King County specific resources 

  • Click here for a list of resources from the CDC

Please free to ask any of the U-TEST testers questions about HIV and AIDS.  Testers are trained to provide clients with unbiased, accurate information, and we are happy to answer any of your questions!

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