(1) What is it and how is it transmitted?
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be transmitted through unprotected penetrative sex (anal or vaginal). It can also be transmitted through blood when sharing drug paraphernalia, or when using nonsterile tattooing or piercing equipment. Transmission can also occur during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
HIV is not transmitted through everyday actions, such as sneezing, greeting kisses, skin-to-skin contact, or by using public toilets or drinking from the same glass.
Undetectable = untransmittable: if the viral load is undetectable*, there is no real risk of transmission.
*Viral load refers to the amount of virus present in a person’s blood. When it is undetectable, it means that the viral load is below the detection threshold. In Quebec, this threshold has been established at less than 200 copies/ml.
It is possible to have no symptoms. Symptoms, when present, may also go unnoticed. A person can therefore be infected without knowing it.
HIV has three distinct phases:
- The first phase, called primary infection, occurs two to four weeks after infection. At this time, the following symptoms appear and last for three weeks: flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, fatigue, muscle pain), mouth ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, flushing of the chest and face, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe weight loss. These symptoms can also go unnoticed.
- The second phase is asymptomatic, meaning that the symptoms may fade or even disappear altogether, but the virus remains in the body and can still be transmitted. If left untreated, this phase can last for more than ten years in some people.
- The third phase is symptomatic, with symptoms appearing as the immune system weakens. These symptoms may include chronic fatigue, night sweats, fever, diarrhea, and significant weight loss.
(3) Complications when left undetected and untreated
HIV attacks the immune system. Over time, if the infection remains untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, which stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” People who are infected with HIV carry the virus for life but do not necessarily have AIDS. AIDS occurs after the three stages of HIV, when opportunistic infections take advantage of the weakened immune system. These infections vary in symptoms and are potentially fatal if treatment is not initiated. Today, HIV-positive people who receive adequate treatment have a quality of life and life expectancy comparable to those of HIV-negative people.
Screening is done through a blood test.
While there is no cure for HIV, there are drugs available that control the virus’s replication, which reduces the risk of transmission and slows the infection’s progression toward AIDS. Medication and consistent medical follow-up can even make a person’s viral load undetectable, thereby eliminating the risk of transmission.