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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus (type of germ) which infects humans and causes a serious illness called HIV disease. HIV belongs to a group of viruses called retroviruses.
A person with HIV infection is called HIV positive (HIV + ve). A person without HIV infection is called HIV negative (HIV – ve).
When HIV disease becomes advanced and threatens the person’s life it is called AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Most people with HIV infection who are correctly managed should not develop AIDS.
It is important to understand that many people with HIV infection will never develop AIDS if they are correctly managed.
HIV weakens and damages the cells of the immune system. These are a group of special cells in the body which help to prevent many infections. These immune cells are called CD4 cells. The CD4 cells act as soldiers which fight off infections and protect the body. With early HIV infection the immune system still functions normally and the person remains clinically well.
HIV damages the immune system which then can no longer protect the body against many dangerous infections.
Once the body is infected with HIV the virus slowly multiplies. As the amount of virus in the body (called the viral load) increases over time more and more CD4 cells are killed. This progressively weakens the immune system and the person starts to become ill, first with mild infections and later with severe infections.
As the HIV infection progresses it is divided into 4 clinical stages.
Stage 1 starts when the person becomes infected with HIV. The amount of virus in the body rapidly increases and the person becomes ill. This illness looks like influenza (flu) with a fever, headache and body pains. They may also have a rash and swollen lymph nodes.
Stage 2 begins a few weeks later when the body starts to produce antibodies to the virus and as a result the person feels much better. The antibodies in the body control the HIV infection for a number of years and during this time the person remains well. At this time they often do not know that they have been infected with HIV. As antibodies are produced the amount of virus in the body decreases but does not disappear completely. Stage 2 may last a number of years in adults.
Stage 3 starts when the HIV infection lowers the number of CD4 cells and the immune system can no longer protect the body from many mild infections such as chest infections, oral thrush and cold sores. The person feels unwell, loses weight, may have vomiting and diarrhoea, general body pains and swollen lymph nodes. This is called HIV disease.
Stage 4 starts when the immune system is very damaged and cannot protect the person from dangerous and life threatening infections such as tuberculosis (TB). These people now have AIDS. They are very ill as they have very few CD4 cells and they have a high viral load in their bodies. Without the correct treatment they will die.
Testing for HIV is simple and fast and can be done at most health facilities. A sample of finger prick blood is needed. The rapid HIV test detects any HIV antibodies and can be done at the health facility. The result is available in a few minutes. The presence of HIV antibodies in a person’s blood indicates that they have been infected with HIV. Counselling is needed before the test to explain the importance of the test and how it is done. It is also needed after the test when the person is given the results.
HIV is diagnosed with a simple, rapid HIV test on a sample of blood.
Yes. The virus can be spread (transmitted) from person to person. Therefore HIV is an infectious disease. Every effort must be made to prevent the spread of HIV.
All people with HIV infection who are not on antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) are infectious to others.
People with stage 1 infection have not produced antibodies to HIV yet so they have a high viral load and are very infectious to others. Patients with stage 4 infection also have a high viral load as their immune system is too weak to produce antibodies. Therefore people with stage 4 infection are also very infectious to others. Patients with stage 2 and 3 HIV do produce antibodies to fight the HIV infection, but they are still infectious to others.
The correct use of antiretroviral treatment lowers the HIV viral load in the body and prevents the spread of HIV to others.
There are two common ways that HIV is spread from one person to another:
Less common ways to become infected with HIV are sharing unsterilised injection syringes or needles, razor blades or skin piercing instruments that are used for tattooing. Blood transfusions are safe in South Africa as all donated blood is screened for HIV. Insect bites do not spread HIV.
HIV infection is very common in South Africa. About 19% of people in South Africa are infected with HIV. The percentage of HIV positive pregnant women varies from 13% in the Western Cape to 40% in Kwazulu-Natal.
Yes. Four times more women than men are infected with HIV. The risk is particularly high in young women who have older or multiple sex partners. These women are often not able to negotiate safe sex.
Young women are at high risk of HIV infection.
There are 3 important ways that both men and women can prevent becoming infected with HIV. This is called practising safer sex:
Abstain, be faithful and condomise to avoid HIV infection.
Other important ways of reducing the risk of HIV infection are:
Yes. Both adults and children with HIV infection can remain well for many years if they lead a healthy lifestyle and take antiretroviral medication.
Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs. These are a group of important medicines that act against HIV. These ARVs may be used to prevent HIV infection or control HIV infection. At present HIV infection cannot be cured.
Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs because HIV is a specific type of virus called a retrovirus.
Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs.
Many people with HIV infection suffer from stigma. Stigma means disapproval and rejection. This is a negative belief or attitude towards another person who you think is different to yourself because they have HIV. Many people incorrectly believe that someone who is HIV positive must be bad, dirty and have no morals, and as a result they should be avoided and punished.
Mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV can take place at three different times:
HIV can spread from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding.
If an HIV positive mother and her baby are not receiving ARVs the estimated risk of the baby being infected with HIV is:
Therefore the overall risk for HIV transmission in an HIV positive mother who is not receiving ARVs and practices mixed breastfeeding for 6 months is about 25%.
The risk of transmission is higher if the mother becomes infected with HIV while she is pregnant or still breastfeeding.
Yes. The risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be reduced or prevented by:
The risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be reduced to less than 1%.
It is important that all HIV positive mothers are identified when they book for antenatal care so that they can be managed in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme.
All pregnant women must book early for antenatal care and be screened for HIV at the first visit.
All HIV positive pregnant women should be started on ARVs if they are not already receiving ARVs. Management with ARVs is started as soon as the diagnosis of HIV infection is made and these women must remain on ARVs for life. ARVs will reduce the risk of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV as well as control the mother’s HIV infection and keep her healthy.
Pregnant women should take one ARV tablet every evening at bedtime. This is the fixed dose combination (FDC) tablet. The tablet contains three different ARVs. These will be prescribed at the healthcare facility. It is very important that the mother takes her medication every day during her pregnancy, labour and after delivery.
All mothers should have a 6 week postnatal check. At this time the further management of HIV positive mothers will be made. All HIV positive women should continue with ARVs for life to prevent them developing HIV disease.
HIV positive pregnant women should start daily ARVs for life.
Babies born to mothers who are HIV positive are called HIV exposed babies. HIV exposed babies should be given a daily dose of nevirapine drops starting within one hour after they are born. The daily nevirapine drops for the baby should be continued until 6 weeks after birth. The nevirapine drops will not hurt the baby but will protect the baby from HIV infection.
HIV exposed babies must be given nevirapine drops daily for 6 weeks.
HIV exposed babies must be closely followed up at a primary care clinic. At 6 weeks old, HIV exposed babies will have a PCR blood test to assess whether they have been infected with HIV.
The 6 weeks screen is usually done when immunisations are given and the mother has her postnatal visit:
Women with HIV infection should be carefully counselled during pregnancy so that they can decide and plan how to feed their newborn baby. They have two options:
Mixed feeding of both breast milk and formula should NOT be used as this increases the risk of HIV crossing in the breast milk to the baby.
Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the best method of feeding a newborn baby for both HIV positive and HIV negative women. The risk of HIV passing from mother to baby is very small if both are correctly taking ARVs.
The main advantages of exclusive breastfeeding are:
All mothers should be encouraged to practice exclusive breastfeeding.
For both HIV positive and HIV negative women exclusive formula feeding should only be considered if all the following can be met:
Whenever possible cups rather than bottles should be used to formula feed as cups are much easier to clean properly with soap and water.
If an HIV positive mother refuses ARVs she should exclusively formula feed her baby.
When using ARVs the risk of HIV transmission with exclusive breastfeeding is very small.
Community Health Workers can prevent the spread of HIV in the community, reduce the number of deaths from HIV and improve the health of women. Community Health Workers can:
Community healthcare workers have an important role to play in supporting HIV positive mothers.
A young, unmarried woman, who is pregnant for the first time, books for antenatal care at 20 weeks after her last menstrual period. When screened for HIV she is found to be HIV positive.
The rapid HIV test for HIV antibodies is used to screen adults for HIV infection. This simple test can be done at the health facility on a small sample of blood. The result is available within 30 minutes.
No. All pregnant women should book for antenatal care and be screened for HIV before 12 weeks after their last normal menstrual period. This allows for the early diagnosis and management of HIV which prevents HIV crossing from the mother to her unborn baby.
Yes. Many people in the early stages of HIV infection are clinically well and may not even know they are infected with HIV. Only after a few years of HIV infection will the person become ill (now called HIV disease). HIV disease is called AIDS when they become severely ill.
HIV infection damages the immune system. As a result the number of CD4 cells in the blood drops and the person becomes at risk for a wide range of serious infections such as tuberculosis (TB).
By unprotected sexual intercourse. Women are at higher risk than men for infection with HIV.
By practising safer sex. This includes abstaining from sexual intercourse, being faithful to one HIV negative partner and using condoms correctly. If HIV positive people take ARVs correctly the risk of spreading HIV is greatly reduced.
A 32 year old mother of two children books for antenatal care at 12 weeks of gestation. She knows that both she and her husband are HIV positive. She is clinically well and not on ARVs (antiretroviral treatment) as her CD4 count is still normal.
Yes. All pregnant women who are HIV positive must be started on ARVs even if they are clinically well with a normal CD4 count. They must continue taking ARVs for life.
A once a day fixed dose combination (FDC) tablet which contains 3 different ARVs. The tablet should be taken every the evening before going to bed.
It keeps the mother well and also prevents the spread of HIV to her unborn baby and newborn baby. It will also help prevent spreading HIV to her partner or partners.
HIV may cross from the mother to her baby during pregnancy, delivery and while breastfeeding.
Without the correct management with ARVs, the risk of HIV transmission from a mother who has a vaginal delivery and breastfeeds her baby is about 25%. However with correct management with ARVs the risk of transmission from mother to baby is very small and can be less than 1%.
A woman in her last three months of pregnancy has been on ARVs since she was found to be HIV positive early in her pregnancy. When attending an antenatal visit she tells the Community Healthcare Worker that she plans to formula feed her baby as her mother says that breastfeeding is dangerous if one is HIV positive.
Yes. If ARVs are taken correctly by mother and baby the risk of HIV crossing in the breast milk is very small. Therefore both HIV positive and HIV negative women should be encouraged to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months.
From birth the baby should receive a daily dose of nevirapine drops (an ARV). This should be continued until 6 weeks of age when the baby should be screened for HIV infection.
If the mother is HIV positive, a PCR screening test should be done at 6 weeks old when the baby attends a clinic for immunisation. If the test is positive the baby has been infected with HIV and must be started on ARVs immediately. If the test is negative the baby has not been infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery.