HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that weakens the body's immune system and was discovered around 1980. Today, most of the people who are HIV positive in Sweden have access to good and effective treatment, but HIV still cannot be cured. Despite improved treatment options, there are many medical and personal consequences of living with HIV. If you do not know your HIV status, it is a good idea to get regularly tested, get treatment, if needed, and stop the risk of you transmitting the virus to someone else.
HIV is most commonly transmitted through unprotected anal and vaginal intercourse and through sharing needles. It can also be transmitted from birth parent to child; HIV positive pregnant and breastfeeding people who are not receiving treatment can transmit the infection to the child. Oral sex carries a small risk of transferring HIV.
Compared to many other diseases, HIV is not very easily transmitted as the virus cannot survive in the air. In order for HIV to be transmitted between people, it requires a certain level of the virus to be present, so if you are HIV positive and have an effective treatment, you will have an insufficient level of the virus in your body to transmit it to someone else. Most people that contract HIV are infected by someone who does not know that they have HIV.
The best way to avoid HIV being transmitted is to use condoms when having intercourse, not let your mouth come in contact with sperm, and not share needles. Everyone shares the responsibility to protect ourselves and others, regardless of whether we are living with HIV or not.
If you have sex in ways that HIV can be transmitted, it is a good idea to get regularly tested, at least once a year. If you are having sex with multiple partners, you should get tested every six months. If you are worried that you might have contracted HIV, you should get tested immediately. A positive test result means that you have HIV, and a negative means that you do not. A traditional blood test can give a reliable result six weeks after the time of possible transmission, and a quick test can give a reliable result after eight weeks. You can get tested earlier, and most of the time results are reliable two weeks after possible infection.
Traditional HIV Test
Most commonly, HIV is diagnosed through a blood test taken at the crook (bend) of the arm in a healthcare facility. The blood is sent for analysis, and the results are usually back after a couple of days. The benefit of getting tested at a health clinic is that there are nurses and counsellors available to talk to, if you need. If the test is positive, you are referred to a physician that specialises in HIV and you will visit them regularly for follow up and treatment.
Rapid HIV Test
Rapid HIV tests are relatively new in Sweden, and are not yet readily available in general healthcare. A rapid test is taken through pricking a finger and testing a few drops of blood. Results are usually ready within 15 minutes. Just like with traditional testing, you are referred to an HIV specialist.
You can get a rapid test at RFSL or some of the other independent clinics in the larger cities. If you test positive at RFSL, you will get assistance in contacting healthcare, but if you test positive abroad then will have to contact an HIV specialist yourself.
If you test positive in a rapid test, an additional traditional blood test is taken.
What Happens in the Body when You Contract HIV?
When HIV enters the body, it starts multiplying and the level of virus increases quickly. The risk of transmitting HIV to someone else is greatest at the beginning, when the viral load is high and you are unaware that you are HIV positive.
About half of everyone who contracts HIV will develop a primary infection between one to four weeks after being infected. A primary infection means that you get sick – some people do not get very sick while others have strong symptoms, like a bad flu, and need to seek emergency care. After a couple of weeks, the primary infection subsides, but the lymph nodes are usually still swollen. Often, you can get tested for HIV during the primary infection.
After the primary infection, it can take years until the HIV is noticed again, however, it is good to get tested and start treatment as soon as possible so that you do not get sick or transmit the virus to someone else.
HIV is a virus that weakens the body’s immune system. It attacks the T helper cells (cd4+) that are one of the types of cells that regulate the body’s defence against different diseases, like viruses, bacteria and fungi. The HIV virus needs living cells in order to multiply. In the cell, the virus blends with the cell’s genetic material and can be dormant for a long time. If the cell is activated, it starts producing the virus again. When the cell multiplies through mitosis, HIV is embedded in the new cells and will destroy them over time.
The level of virus in the blood can vary, and it is usually measured when you visit a doctor. Most people that receive HIV treatment have a viral load that is so small, it cannot be detected – this is a good thing, but the virus is still embedded in the cells and can be activated if you discontinue treatment.
There are very effective treatments that prevent the HIV positive person from getting sick, but unfortunately the disease cannot be cured. Many who test positive start treatment quickly, often within a couple of weeks. The medications have improved and the adverse effects have been reduced dramatically. It is still common to experience side effects in the beginning of treatment, but they usually subside.
It is important to be careful with the medication and follow the doctor’s instructions for it to work optimally and avoid negative side effects. If you discontinue taking your medication or do not follow instructions, the virus can become treatment resistant, making it more difficult to develop effective drugs.
Most people who have HIV can live long and feel well. Most have undetectable viral loads, making it basically impossible for them to transmit HIV to someone else.
If you do not get treatment for HIV, you will develop a very weak immune system and become sick. When the immune system cannot fight infections like a cold or flu, these infections can make you really sick. When you are very sick as a result of HIV having weakened your immune system, this is called AIDS, and if you do not get treatment, this is a deadly disease. Today, there are very few people in Sweden who die from AIDS as our HIV treatment works effectively.