What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus which, over time, damages the human immune system. The immune system is the body’s defence against infectious organisms and infections. In most cases, the immune system keeps people healthy and prevents infections. But sometimes problems with the immune system can lead to illness and infection.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. It is the result of damage to the immune system caused by HIV. If someone has AIDS they may become unwell and develop particular illnesses.
HIV is transmitted in very specific ways. The most common are:
- through unprotected penetrative sex
- From mother-to-baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding
- through sharing equipment for preparing and injecting drugs
PrEP – Pre-exposure prophylaxis
The recently launched HIV Prevention Clinic / Risk Reduction clinic runs several times per week in the BHSCT GUM clinic. It has been set up to provide testing for STI’s, behavioural interventions aimed at reducing risk and access to the HIV prevention drug PrEP.
All genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics in Northern Ireland will be offering initial consultation and assessment appointments. Those eligible will then be referred to a centralised service in Belfast.
The project will run for 2 years. If PrEP is accessed as part of the pilot, those eligible will need to visit a sexual health clinic four times a year.
To access PrEP in Northern Ireland you need to be:
- over 16, and
- able to attend for regular 3 month reviews in Belfast,
- willing to stop taking PrEP when no longer eligible,
- resident in Northern Ireland
- HIV negative and have tested for HIV at a clinic in the previous 12 months.
You will also need to match one or more of these descriptions:
- HIV negative, and expect to have condomless sex with an HIV positive partner/s with a detectable viral load.
- HIV negative and have had condomless sex in the past 3 months and think you will again in the next 3 months, and you are a: cis or transgender MSM (man who has sex with men) or transgender woman.
- You don’t meet the first two descriptions, but you’ve been clinically assessed as being at a similar high risk of becoming HIV positive.
PEP- Post Exposure Prophylaxis
PEP is a course of HIV drugs that can be taken if you have been at risk of HIV infection. If there is risk then PEP must be taken within 72 hours of that exposure risk. The medication has to be taken for 28 days and can cause multiple side effects.
If you feel you have been exposed to HIV, you should visit an Accident and Emergency department or a Genito Urinary Clinic and request PEP. PEP will be provided if the risk is assessed to be significant. The drug treatment is highly costly therefore there are guidelines as to how PEP is prescribed.
Frequently Asked Questions
No. When someone is described as living with HIV, they have the HIV virus in their body. AIDS is advanced HIV when the immune system is so weak it can no longer fight off a range of diseases with which it would normally cope. Fortunately an AIDS diagnosis is rare in Northern Ireland thanks to existing and developing treatments.
If someone has HIV then the virus will be present in certain bodily fluids, sufficient enough to infect someone else. These bodily fluids are semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk and rectal secretions. The most common ways HIV is transmitted are through unprotected sex and sharing infected needles, syringes or other injecting drug equipment and mother to baby transmission. You cannot get HIV through casual or day-to-day contact, or kissing, spitting or sharing a cup or plate.
Although the risk of transmitting HIV through oral sex is low, there is still a risk. It is best to avoid giving oral sex if you have cuts or sores in your mouth or bleeding gums, as this increases the risk of HIV entering your body. To reduce risk during oral sex, it is advised to use a condom or dental dam.
The best method of protecting yourself from HIV infection is to always use a condom when having intercourse. You can get free condoms from a sexual health clinic, GUM Clinic or Positive Life in Belfast City centre. Never share needles, syringes or any other injecting equipment.
If you are concerned you have put yourself at risk, you should get an HIV test as soon as possible. You can get tested at your local GUM clinic.