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HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a lentivirus that causes HIV infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (known as AIDS).
Anyone can acquire it, normally through a bodily fluid (eg blood, semen or vaginal secretions) being transferred from an infected person. It’s not as easy to catch as people sometimes think but there are certain high-risk activities including unprotected sexual intercourse, especially anal. Condoms are highly effective at preventing transmission. The risk when not using a condom decreases significantly if the viral load of the infected person is suppressed by Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART).
It’s for this reason that testing and knowing one’s HIV status is so important. If you have become infected then the sooner you know and ART can be prescribed, the less the damage that can occur to your immune system.
HIV is still not something that one should be blasé about: it’s not something that you really want to have to live with for the rest of your life. There is no cure. However, early testing and, if necessary, treatment should ensure that it is fully manageable and that you can continue to live as long and as healthily as you would have otherwise.
It most certainly is no longer the early ‘death sentence’ that many considered it back in the early days of the epidemic, in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
There are a large number of organisations that provide information about all aspect of HIV and AIDS and have good websites. These include
Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) http://www.tht.org.uk/
National AIDS Trust (NAT) http://www.nat.org.uk/
National AIDS Manual (NAM) http://www.aidsmap.com/
HIV testing is quick and painless and most clinics today will be able to provide an instant result (at most within 15 minutes). If you have been at risk of being infected, it is always better to be sure. However, there is a period after infection during which HIV is difficult to detect. With certain new tests this period is now reduced considerably but in any instance it is best to seek advice from a clinic or other specialist health professional as soon as possible. They will be able to advise about testing and, where necessary, the need to re-test after a set period.
If you believe that you have been at risk of being infected then there is now something that can be done about this, called PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) but it is important to take action quickly, ideally within 24 hours of the possible infection and no later than 72 hours (provide link to PEP section).
Many clinics will automatically test for HIV if they take a blood sample but will inform you of this so that you can opt out if you wish.
You may have heard of a special form of anti-HIV treatment called PEP (or Post Exposure Prophylaxis).
This is essentially the only thing that can prevent you acquiring HIV if you have been exposed to the virus. It consists of a 4 week course of medicine but must be started as soon as possible after the exposure (eg a case of unprotected sex with someone who you then find out is HIV positive) – ideally within 24 hours but within 72 hours if it is to have any chance of succeeding.
It is available from all Accident & Emergency Departments on a 24/7 basis but must be taken daily if it is to be successful and does have some side effects. It has been shown to be effective in most – but not all - cases.
You may also have heard about PrEP or Pre Exposure Prophylaxis. This is a similar course of treatment that would need to be taken every day for the rest of your life or while you were sexually active and likely to engage in unprotected sex. This form of therapy is not yet available on the NHS in the United Kingdom (it is available privately but is relatively expensive). However, sexual health professionals are increasingly of the opinion that it could play an important role in reducing HIV infection and therefore eventual halt the epidemic. Gay men in particular who regularly use condoms to prevent acquiring HIV but who may occasionally lapse – perhaps when affected by recreational drugs when out partying – would arguably most benefit from this therapy.
If you want to pay for PrEP yourself the look here https://getprep.uk/