An expert explains how HIV is passed on, who is at risk of getting it, and how it affects the immune system.

Find out more about HIV

Transcript of HIV

My name is Harold Jaffe.

I'm a professor of public health at the University of Oxford.

HIV is an abbreviation for the human immunodeficiency virus,

which is the virus that causes AIDS.

We know it's transmitted primarily sexually,

by exposure to blood and from mother to child.

We also know that over time it weakens the body's immune system,

so that an infected individual becomes susceptible

to a whole variety of serious infections and even some cancers.

But that happens relatively slowly,

perhaps over five, ten or even more years.

The people at most risk for HIV

really vary depending on what part of the world you're talking about.

So in this country, in the UK,

we're talking mainly about homosexual men,

also recent immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and their sexual partners.

There is also an epidemic associated with injection drug use,

and that's been seen particularly in the southern parts of Europe.

One of the great difficulties about HIV

is that most people who have it don't know it, they have no symptoms at all.

When they do have symptoms they tend to be rather non-specific,

things like fever, weight loss, sometimes swelling of lymph nodes,

but most people who are infected don't know it until they become seriously ill.

It's actually relatively easy to diagnose HIV infection.

There are a number of different blood tests available to do this.

There are some tests where you can get an initial result in maybe 20 minutes,

and it's possible to diagnose it in a single visit to a doctor's office.

Certainly anyone at risk should be tested,

and in this country that would certainly include men who have sex with men.

It would make sense for anyone who's ever injected drugs to be tested.

It would be reasonable

particularly for young people with multiple sex partners to be tested,

for people from parts of the world where infection rates are much higher,

such as sub-Saharan Africa,

and it is a routine policy in this country

to test all women who are giving birth

as well as all patients being seen in GUM clinics.

The situation with treatment is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that we do have

very highly effective treatment available now,

so that most people can live quite normal lives

for many years on that treatment.

The bad news is that the treatment consists of multiple drugs,

usually at least three drugs.

All of them have side effects.

If an individual misses doses of the drug,

there is a chance that the virus can become resistant,

which would necessitate switching to other, often more toxic, drugs.

And the treatment isn't curative,

so that you're really talking about lifetime treatment.

We have no treatment available

that will actually eliminate the virus from the body.

I think it's important to understand

that HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence that it was 20 years ago.

We have good treatments.

If people are diagnosed early,

if they take their medicine, if they keep their medical appointments,

they can do very well.

And we certainly have lots of people

who have been on treatment five, ten years or even more

who are leading perfectly normal, active lives.

Now, how long can that go on? Will they live a normal life?

We don't know, but I think there's a lot of reason for optimism.


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