Updated 26 June 2014

Aids 101

It’s been with us for a quarter-century; you’d think we’d have a reasonably good grasp of how HIV/Aids works by now. But we could all do with a brush-up on the fundamentals.


It's been with us for a quarter-century; you'd think we'd have a reasonably good grasp of how HIV/Aids works by now. But confusion and misinformation still spread along with the virus, and as this sample of Health24 user comments shows, many of us sometimes lose the plot:

- "You are one of the lucky ones; the virus just can't stick to you."

- "A mixture of coconut, oil olive and apple cider was believed to increase CD4 count. Does it still work?"

- "HIV can be delayed and in 20% of cases undetected in 6 - 12 months through silver nano therapy."

- "Can I buy HIV negative results?"

- "It still remains to be proved if those who survive longer is as a result of ARVs."

- "A guy in the U.S. put infected blood in a ketchup bottle in a restaurant to infect people."

- "Can you get Aids from bedbugs?"

- "Is it possible for a circumcised man to contract HIV from a woman partner if he washes his member after unprotected sex?"

What often gets obscured in the blizzard of information about HIV/Aids are the fundamentals, and we could all do with a refresher course every now and then. So here, in accordance with current thinking of the world's most reputable and dedicated HIV/Aids experts, are the basics, once again:

HIV causes Aids

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, which normally allows the body to fight infections.

Aids (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the final stage of HIV infection, when the virus has weakened the immune system so much that it can no longer effectively fight infection.

Aids is not caused by poverty or poor nutrition. These, among other factors, can increase the risk of contracting HIV, and may speed the progression of the disease, but they do not cause Aids. Read more about what causes HIV/Aids

HIV/Aids can only be transmitted via sex, contaminated blood, or mother-to-child

HIV/Aids can only be transmitted through:
- unprotected (i.e. without a condom) vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected person. There is a low risk of transmission via open-mouth kissing.
- contaminated blood entering the bloodstream, which happens most often through needle-sharing with an infected person, transfusion with contaminated blood products, needle-stick injuries (as when medical personnel accidentally prick themselves with an infected syringe).
- the mother-to-child route. An HIV-positive mother can infect her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
Read more about HIV/Aids transmission.
Prevention of HIV/Aids

HIV is not airborne or food-borne, and doesn't live long outside the body. You can’t get HIV/Aids from food (like ketchup) or drink contaminated by infected body fluids, or from bedbugs, mosquitoes or other insects. Myths proliferate about transmission more than any other aspect of HIV/Aids. More transmission myths and misconceptions.

The only way to tell if someone has HIV/Aids is to get tested

It's impossible to tell by someone's appearance or symptoms if they have HIV/Aids. Some HIV-positive people do not have obvious symptoms for years after infection, and symptoms of HIV are often similar to those of many other conditions. The importance of getting tested

Currently there is no cure for HIV/Aids

Although treatment of HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically, allowing HIV-positive people to live much longer, healthier lives, there is as yet no cure for the disease, and any claims to the contrary should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Read about the course of the disease.

The use of ARVs (antiretrovirals), which are drugs that slow down the multiplication of the virus in the body, is the mainstay of treatment. There are additional treatments that address symptoms and opportunistic infections that result from HIV/AIDS.

Living a healthy lifestyle and paying attention to nutrition contributes to overall health and management of the disease, but there is no foodstuff, nutritional supplement or alternative therapy that can offer anything like the undeniable benefits of an appropriate drug regimen.

(Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated February 2010)

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HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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