HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that invades the immune system and destroys it over time. The destruction of the immune system reduces a person’s ability to fight off infections and cancer. The majority of people infected with HIV eventually develop AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which is often fatal. Exposure to infected blood or other body fluids is required for HIV transmission to occur; the highest HIV concentrations are in blood, semen and vaginal secretions. Intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men are at the highest risk for HIV, followed by those who have sex with multiple partners. People who have untreated sexually transmitted diseases (particularly those that cause sores&mdashsuch as syphilis) have an increased risk of acquiring HIV infection. HIV is not transmitted through the type of casual contact that occurs in the workplace.

Infected individuals may have short-lived, flu-like symptoms (fatigue, fever, aches). Others have no symptoms with the initial infection or for many years thereafter. AIDS typically appears about 10 years after the initial HIV infection (although new therapies may further delay the development of AIDS). HIV usually develops into AIDS, which is often painful and deadly. More than a dozen “opportunistic” infections (ie, infections that are fought off by normal immune systems) and several types of cancer are common in AIDS patients. These infections include tuberculosis, pneumocystis pneumonia, certain types of fungal and yeast infections, and persistent and unusual intestinal infections. Common cancers include lymphomas and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Due to the severe nature of HIV, people with HIV infections should seriously consider abstaining from future sexual activity, as it poses a considerable risk to any uninfected partner. Because HIV can be passed from a mother to child, it is important for every pregnant woman and her doctor to know the woman’s HIV status. Prompt treatment of the mother and newborn significantly decreases the infant’s risk of HIV infection. Blood tests are available to diagnose HIV infections. When a person is first infected with HIV, a few months (1-6) may need to go by before the blood tests become positive. A complex regimen of medicine can prolong the lives of those infected with HIV for many years. These drugs are expensive, often have considerable side effects and great care must be taken to take them consistently. Though a great deal of energy and financial resources have been devoted to finding an effective vaccine, these efforts have yet to prove successful.

Using condoms exactly as directed every time you have sex can reduce your risk of getting HIV by about 85 percent.3,4 However, this still leaves a significant chance of getting a deadly disease. It is also possible for HIV to be passed during oral sex. Don't shoot drugs. If you haven't had sex and don't shoot drugs, your chances of getting HIV/AIDS are remote. If you’ve already been sexually active outside a lifelong mutually faithful relationship (as in marriage), talk to your healthcare provider about getting you and your partner tested for STDs. Abstinence from sexual activity&mdashincluding oral sex&mdashor lifetime faithfulness to one uninfected partner is the only certain way to avoid being infected sexually.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV/AIDS Update. Available at Accessed July 23, 2003. 2  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New CDC Initiative Would Increase HIV Testing and Enhance Prevention for Persons Living with HIV (Press Release). April 17, 2003. 3  Davis KR, Weller SC. The effectiveness of condoms in reducing heterosexual transmission of HIV. Fam Plann Perspect. 1999;31:2272-279. 4  Workshop Summary: Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention. July 20, 2001. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. 

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