Breaking News! A research study of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV will be enrolling 500 people at high risk of HIV infection in South Australia from mid-April 2017. If you are interested in being part of the study, please have a look at the Alfred Health webpage about the PrEPX-SA study.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV attacks the immune system by infecting certain blood cells that fight infection (CD4+ T-cells), gradually weakening the body until it can no longer defend itself against other bacteria or viruses. Without effective antiretroviral (anti-HIV) medications, a person may eventually go on to develop AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In Australia, a person is diagnosed with AIDS once their immune system is so depleted that they have acquired one or more of a list of infections called AIDS defining illnesses. HIV and AIDS are not the same, and it is best to just say HIV when you are talking about it, unless you are specifically referring to someone who has been living with HIV and has also been diagnosed with AIDS.
How do you get HIV?
HIV is transmitted in three main ways:
- Blood to blood contact (e.g. sharing injecting, tattooing or piercing equipment)
- Sexual contact (e.g. unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse)
- Mother to child (during pregnancy, child birth or breastfeeding)
HIV can NOT be transmitted via other body fluids such as saliva, urine, sweat, etc. nor can it be transmitted by other types of casual contact (such as sharing cups, cutlery, toilet seats, etc.)
How common is HIV and who does it affect?
HIV does not discriminate. Anyone who is exposed to HIV can get it. There are, however, groups of people who are more commonly diagnosed with HIV in Australia. Gay men and men who have sex with men and people from high prevalence countries (mostly heterosexual) are the key affected populations in South Australia.
How is HIV prevented?
Most people think of condoms when they think about preventing HIV. Condoms (including female condoms) are a great way to prevent HIV transmission, as they also prevent unplanned pregnancy and most other STIs (sexually transmissible infections) if used correctly. They are also cheap (or free from SHINE SA clinics) and easily accessible from most supermarkets, pharmacies, even petrol stations.
PEP = post exposure prophylaxis. PEP is a 28 day course of medication that you can take up to 72 hours (but the sooner the better) after a potential exposure to HIV that can prevent you from getting HIV. If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, please call the SA PEP hotline as soon as possible on 1800 022 226. It is open 24/7. The nurse on the hotline will be able to tell you if you are eligible for PEP, where to get it from and other important information.
PrEP = pre exposure prophylaxis. It is a course of medications that can be taken before a potential exposure to HIV that can prevent you from getting HIV. A research study of PrEP is enrolling 500 people at high risk of HIV infection in South Australia from mid-April 2017. If you are interested in being part of the study, please have a look at the Alfred Health webpage about the PrEPX-SA study.
TasP = Treatment as Prevention. People who are HIV-positive and take their medications as prescribed are often able to achieve what is called an undetectable viral load. This means that the levels of virus that are left in the bloodstream are so low that current tests are unable to detect them. Large clinical trials have shown that an HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load is unlikely to transmit HIV to anyone.
How do I find out if I’ve got HIV?
HIV is diagnosed by taking a sample of your blood from your arm with a needle and testing it, either for the presence of the virus itself, for antibodies to the virus, or most commonly – both. You can get tested for HIV by asking for a test from your GP or visiting a sexual health service like SHINE SA or Clinic 275. No matter where you get tested for HIV, testing should always be voluntary, confidential and come with a pre and post-test discussion where you can talk to the doctor about what the results might mean for you.
The Window Period
Most of the time when you have an HIV test, you will be asked how long ago you think you might have been exposed to HIV. This is because there is a period of time known as the window period, where your body may have been infected by HIV, but it will not show up on the tests. The standard for the window period is 3 months, however it depends on what type of test you’re having, as some tests are more sensitive than others. Unfortunately, this is also the time when HIV is most infectious, so this is when many people will unknowingly transmit the virus. Knowing your HIV status is so important to avoid passing it on to others.
Rapid HIV Testing
You’ve probably hear about rapid tests for HIV, where you can get your results in under 30 minutes, during the same appointment (rather than coming back a couple of days later as you have to do with standard lab tests). Rapid tests are done by finger prick sample rather than a blood draw, however you will usually be asked to provide a blood sample to be sent away to the laboratory for confirmatory testing, as in a very small number of cases the rapid tests can be incorrect. Rapid HIV tests are available via SHINE SA’s Rapido service as well as Clinic 275 and O’Brien Street General Practice.
What happens if my test comes back as HIV-positive?
Getting an HIV-positive test result can be a life-changing experience, however we are fortunate to live in a place where that result doesn’t mean a death sentence anymore. Effective antiretroviral medications are available, and new evidence suggests that the sooner you start treatment, the better your health outcomes will be in the long term. Talk to your doctor about the best time for you to start treatment.
Even though there may be challenges in living with HIV, you can live to a normal life expectancy provided you take medications as prescribed and lead a healthy lifestyle. (e.g. healthy diet, no smoking, limited alcohol and other drugs).
There are lots of supports and services available to help you live well with HIV.
Further information and services
South Australian Mobilisation + Empowerment for Sexual Health (SAMESH)
South Australia’s targeted HIV and STI prevention program with support for people living with HIV.
P: 08 7099 5300 E: firstname.lastname@example.org W: www.samesh.org.au
MOSAIC Blood Borne Viruses Support Services (a program of Relationships Australia SA)
Counselling and case management support for people living with HIV, Hepatitis C or B.
P: 08 8245 8100 (metro) 1800 182 325 (country) W: www.rasa.org.au
Indaba HIV (a program of Relationships Australia SA)
Information and resources for women living with HIV in South Australia and for service providers working with women living with HIV.
Cheltenham Place (Individualised Support Program for People Living with HIV), Centacare
Individuals living with HIV will receive individualised psychosocial support in their own homes or at Cheltenham Place. Cheltenham Place ISP also provides support for carers.
P: 08 8272 8799 E: Cheltenham@centacare.org.au W: www.centacare.org.au/hiv
National Association of People Living with HIV Australia (NAPWHA)
Australia’s peak non-government organisation representing community-based groups of people living with HIV.
P: 02 8568 0300 W: http://napwha.org.au