HIV, short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, damages your immune system, which puts you in danger of developing cancers, infections and other life–threatening diseases. If left untreated, HIV can lead to a much more serious disease called AIDS, short for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
If you take an HIV test and find out that you have the virus, there are treatments available to help you manage the disease. Today’s medications can help your body keep HIV in check and help prevent the development of AIDS. As a result, people with HIV are now living longer, healthier lives. HIV is a chronic, manageable disease — not a death sentence.
It is important to educate yourself, your spouse, your kids, parents and friends about HIV. The face of HIV has changed as times have changed. HIV can affect everyone: women, children, men, youth and their families.
HIV has no conscience – it is an opportunistic virus. But the good news is that HIV is now considered a manageable, chronic disease and is 100 per cent preventable.
Transmission can occur through unprotected sex or blood-to-blood contact, such as sharing injection drug use equipment. The only way to know that you may be infected is to get tested. If you are sexually active or sharing needles, you should know your HIV status. You should also know your partner’s status. Talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner or nurse, or visit a community organization that offers testing.
Protect yourself from becoming infected by:
- Not sharing injection drug use equipment such as needles
- Not sharing sex toys
- Using condoms during vaginal, rectal and oral sex
- Using lubricant during vaginal, rectal and oral sex to prevent tearing in the membranes of the vagina and rectum, as well as to help prevent condom breakage
Many community organizations provide free harm reduction supplies, including condoms (male and female), lubrication, and drug use supplies to help keep you safer.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)
By taking oral medication daily prior to being exposed to HIV, you can reduce your risk of contracting the virus significantly. You might think about asking your care provider whether this treatment, called PrEP, is right for you.
If you don’t have a family doctor or nurse practitioner, or aren’t comfortable discussing PrEP with them, you can refer yourself to the NH Specialized Support Team for assistance. The toll-free phone number is 1-888-645-6495.
Remember the catchphrase: "1 condom, equals 0 transmission, and that can equal 1 life saved."
One of the first steps in preventing the spread of HIV is for each of us to know our status. When people learn that they have HIV, they often change their behaviour to avoid passing the virus on to others. It also means that they can be started on treatment, and we know that the sooner we can start treatment, the better the outcomes for the patient.
Testing for HIV is not just for people who participate in unprotected sex or share IV drug supplies. In fact, everybody between the ages of 18-70 should be tested at least every 5 years. The BC HIV testing guidelines also recommend that seniors over the age of 70 are tested once, and that adults who belong to populations at a greater risk for HIV should be tested annually.
See our list of testing locations in Northern BC to find out where you can get tested.
Most of the testing locations in our region perform lab testing. This means that a staff member will draw some blood from your and then send it off to the lab in Vancouver where all of our HIV testing is performed. It takes up to 2 weeks to receive results. The waiting can be tough, but knowing your results is worth the wait.
We also have some sites that perform Point of Care Testing. In this method, a staff member will prick your finger to draw a small amount of blood. The results are available within a few short minutes. However, if the test comes back positive, or it’s negative but there’s a chance you could have been exposed to HIV within the last few weeks, you’ll need lab testing as well to get an accurate result.
Discover where to get tested in your community.
If you take an HIV test and the results turn out to be positive, it means that you have an HIV infection. At first, you may react with shock to your diagnosis. Then you might go through a period of denial. The good news? HIV is not a death sentence. HIV is a manageable chronic disease and people with HIV are now leading longer and healthier lives than ever before.
Doctors and nurse practitioners, along with their colleagues like pharmacists, social workers, and dietitians, across the region can help get you on the path to the right treatment for you. In addition, there are several agencies within the North with a mission to assist and support those who are living with HIV/AIDS. They can offer information, support and other resources that will help you make important choices about your care and treatment. Many of these organizations also provide an opportunity to connect with others who are living with HIV, which can be greatly beneficial. There are also many online resources to help you learn about living with HIV.
From anywhere in the North, you can also self-refer to Northern Health’s HIV and Hepatitis C Specialist Support Team. This team of health care providers can support you with readiness for treatment, connections with primary care, advocating for access to programs, and much more.
If you test positive for HIV, there are many steps that you can take to live the healthiest life possible. In addition to taking medication, it will be important to eat properly, exercise and get plenty of rest. Since an HIV diagnosis can be very stressful, you also need to take care of your mental health. It may help to find a counsellor or someone else you can talk to about our diagnosis. There are many mental health and substance use clinicians and programs in our region that can support your wellbeing.
When the time comes for you to start receiving treatment for HIV, remember that there are many benefits to early treatment:
- A person being treated for HIV reduces his/her chances of transmitting the virus to others
- A person living with HIV will respond better to medications at a younger age
- A person who gets treatment for HIV reduces his/her chance of dying!
- Being treated for HIV with medications reduces a person’s chance of developing other infections
Treatment for HIV combines three or more powerful medications, called highly active antiretroviral therapy. For some patients, this can come in the form of a single pill each day. They key to successful treatment is remembering to take your medications regularly. This makes sure that the medications can continue to actively fight the HIV virus and ensures your virus doesn’t become immune to the medications.
It’s important to know that treatment for people living with HIV in BC is publicly funded by the Ministry of Health, so you don’t have to worry about the expense of medications. Also, if you live in a rural or remote area, you don’t need to worry about having to make long trips to receive care for your HIV. You and your care provider can consult with a specialist physician, nurse practitioner, pharmacist, or social worker over the phone or through telehealth (video chat).
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is an advanced stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body has been so weakened by HIV that the body becomes vulnerable to certain cancers and other infections that the immune system could normally destroy. A person can live for many years of infection with the HIV virus before the disease develops into AIDS.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) damages the cells of the body's immune system, leading to a gradual destruction of the body's ability to fight infection and certain cancers.
You can get HIV through activities where you come into contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal secretions and breast milk.
These activities include:
- A woman who has HIV passing it to her baby before or during birth or through breastmilk;
- Having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal and/or oral) with someone who is infected with the HIV virus;
- Sharing needles, syringes and other drug-using equipment that is contaminated with the HIV virus;
- Sharing razors or toothbrushes that are contaminated with the HIV virus; and
- Using tattooing and body piercing equipment (including the ink), that isn't sterilized or properly cleaned and is infected with the HIV virus.
- Coughing or sneezing
- Giving blood
- Hugging or kissing
- Sharing linens, utensils or food
- Through animals, mosquitoes or other insect bites
- Touching or shaking hands
- Using swimming pools or toilet seats
- By taking oral medication (PrEP) daily prior to being exposed to HIV, you can reduce your risk of contracting the virus significantly.
- Ensuring that tattooing and piercing equipment is sterile.
- Getting tested with all new partners prior to any sexual activities.
- Limiting the number of sexual partners you have, as having many sexual partners increases your risk.
- Not sharing razors, toothbrushes, needles, syringes, drug use equipment or sex toys.
- Using latex or polyurethane condoms whenever you are engaging in sexual activity; use a new one every time.
- If I have HIV, my baby will contract HIV. True or false?
This is an answer that is neither true or false, but instead depends on the individual situation of each mother. Pregnant women with HIV can take medications to treat their infection and to protect their babies against the virus. Infected mothers can indeed pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery or through breast milk. But you can lower the risk of transmission to your baby to less than two per cent by working with your doctor and getting the appropriate care and medication.
- If you and your partner have HIV, you can have unprotected sex. True or false?
False. Just because you and your partner both have HIV, doesn't mean you should forget about protection when you have sex. Using a condom or other latex barrier can help protect you from other sexually transmitted diseases as well as other strains of HIV, which may be resistant to anti-HIV medication. Even if you are being treated and feel well you can still infect others.
- HIV is a death sentence. True or false?
False. There is no cure for HIV, but treatment can keep virus levels low and help maintain your immune system. Your doctor will consider your general health, the health of your immune system, and the amount of virus in your body to decide when to start treatment. Everyone with HIV experiences it differently. Some people may develop AIDS within a few months as the virus quickly weakens their immune system. Many others can live for decades with HIV by regularly taking medications. You can help prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS by seeing your doctor regularly and following your doctor's recommendations.
- Can anyone get HIV. Yes or no?
Yes, HIV does not discriminate. It can affect men, women, and children; gay and straight people; and people of all races.
- You can't get HIV from casual contact, True or false?
True, you cannot catch or spread HIV from hugging someone, using the same towel, or sharing the same glass. It's very rare to get HIV from a blood transfusion.
- Only certain people need to get tested for HIV. True or false?
False. In BC, it is recommended that an HIV test is offered:
- Every year, to all patients between 18-70 years of age who have a higher risk of HIV (for example, those who use IV drugs or have unprotected sex)
- Every 5 years, to all patients 18-70 years of age
- Once for patients over the age of 70
In addition, an HIV test should be offered to everyone whenever:
- They are having bloodwork done for a new or worsening illness
- They show symptoms of an HIV infection
- They identify a risk for contracting an infection
- They request an HIV test
- They are pregnant
- They are being tested, or have received a positive result, for an STI like Hep C, Hep B or TB
Talk to your family doctor, nurse practitioner, or contact the HIV/HCV Specialized Support Team. If you have further questions about HIV or any other topic about your sexual health talk to a registered nurse at the BC Centre for Disease Control.
For more information about the administrative team who support chronic disease services, see the Regional Chronic Disease Program.