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Education Series

Education Series

Education Series


What is HIV? What is AIDS?


HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus that can be contracted through sexual contact with someone who has HIV.


AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is caused by a virus known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. This virus attacks the body’s immune (defence) system and over period of time destroys it. This leaves the body defenceless against infections by other germs and the growth of cancers
















If I get HIV does it mean I will get AIDS?


HIV infection occurs after the virus enters and establishes infection in the body. In the early stages people look and feel totally well. Even at this stage it is possible to diagnose HIV infection through a blood test. Only when the immune system becomes seriously damaged do persons begin to fall ill. The term AIDS is reserved for this late stage of infections.

Not everybody who is infected with HIV will develop AIDS. About 30% of clients develop AIDS 5 years after they are infected, and 50% will develop AIDS within 8 to 10 years. Others may be well for longer periods of time.  The percentage of clients who show symptoms of AIDS earlier are usually the ones who are not on HIV medical treatments.

Since there is no cure, the only way to beat AIDS is to not allow the virus into your body.



How can I stay healthy with HIV?

First and foremost, get a good doctor. Try to find a doctor who has experience with treating HIV-positive people. You also want someone you can talk to openly and honestly.

There are many other things you can do to keep yourself healthy. Eat wellexercise and get enough rest.

Look after your mental and emotional health. Stress, depression and anxiety often go hand- in-hand with HIV, and sometimes drugs and alcohol do too. If you need someone to talk to, connect with a counsellor, a therapist or a buddy.



Will I have to start medications right away?

Having HIV doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take medications right away. As long as your immune system is still healthy enough on its own, you may not need to take antiretrovirals. However, most HIV-positive people have to start medications at some point, to avoid getting AIDS. How long you can wait depends on a lot of factors.

You and your doctor will make the decision to start treatment based on your blood test results and your symptoms.



What is a CD4 count?

Your CD4 count tells you how many CD4 cells you have: a “normal” CD4 count is anywhere from 600 to 1,200 cells/mm3. That’s how many CD4 cells are in a “cubic millimetre” of blood (about the size of a grain of rice).

CD4 counts are one of the biggest factors in deciding when to start treatment. When your CD4 count dips too low, your doctor will likely discuss your treatment options with you.

If you have HIV, your CD4 count will probably be lower than normal. A count of 200 or lower means a much greater danger of getting sick. Staying healthy means keeping your count well above 350.




What is a viral load?

A viral load test tells you how much HIV is in each “millilitre” of your blood (about the volume of a kidney bean). If you’re not on treatment, your viral load could vary widely— anywhere from a few thousand or less to a million or more. Although a lower viral load usually means you stay healthier longer, this link varies a lot among different people.

What are opportunistic infections (OI)?

Such diseases are rare because people with healthy immune systems can usually fight them off. However, these diseases can strike if they have the opportunity; that is, they infect people with weakened immune systems. For that reason, they are called opportunistic infections (OIs for short).

Is there a cure for HIV / AIDS?

While there is no cure for HIV infection and AIDS at this time, there are medicines that can treat and manage the infections and cancers that occur with AIDS. Drugs which attack the HIV virus are also available. Advancements in treatment mean that lifespan and quality of life of persons living with HIV has dramatically improved and is on par with that of a person without HIV.

Key Terms


DNA: DNA is like the “blueprint” for building living cells.


Enzymes: Enzymes build new proteins, transport materials around the cell, and carry out other important cellular functions.


RNA: Cells use RNA to tell enzymes how to build a specific part of a cell. To make a new protein, enzymes will copy a specific part of the DNA into a piece of RNA. This RNA is then used by other enzymes to build a new protein or enzyme.


Proteins: Building blocks used to make living things.


Nucleus: A small package inside the cell where the genetic material is kept.


CD4: A CD4 cell is a type of lymphocyte. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell and they are some of the most important cells in your immune system. There are two main types of lymphocytes are B-cells and T-cells. B-Cells are antibodies while T-Cells are divided into three groups:

  1. Helper T-Cells (also called T4 or CD4+ cells) help other cells destroy infective organisms.
  2. Suppressor T-Cells (also called T8 or CD8+ cells) suppress the activity of other lymphocytes so they don’t destroy normal tissue.
  3. Killer T-Cells (also called cytotoxic T lymphocytes, or CTLs, and are another kind of T8 or CD8+ cell) recognize and destroy abnormal or infected cells.

CD4 cells are responsible for signalling other immune system cells to fight an infection in the body. They are also the prime target of HIV which can cause the number of these cells to decrease over time. Too few CD4 cells means that the immune system will no longer functions like it is supposed to.

Entry Inhibitor

Entry Inhibitor

Entry inhibitors work by attaching themselves to proteins on the surface of CD4 cells or proteins on the surface of HIV. In order for HIV to bind to CD4 cells, the proteins on HIV’s outer coat must bind to the proteins on the surface of CD4 cells. Entry inhibitors prevent this from happening.

Nucleoside & Nucleotide Analogues (NRTIs)

Nucleoside & Nucleotide Analogues (NRTIs)

NRTIs, sometimes called “nucleoside analogues” or “nukes,” contain faulty versions of the building blocks (nucleotides) used by reverse transcriptase to convert RNA to DNA. When reverse transcriptase uses these faulty building blocks, the new DNA cannot be built correctly. In turn, HIV’s genetic material cannot be incorporated into the healthy genetic material of the cell and prevents the cell from producing new virus.

While nucleotide analogues are technically different than nucleoside analogues, they act very much the same way. In order for nucleoside analogues to work, they must undergo chemical changes (phosphorylation) to become active in the body. Nucleotide analogues bypass this step, given that they are already chemically activated.

Non-Nucleosides Reverse Transcriptase (NNRTIs)

NNRTIs, also known as “non-nucleosides” or “non-nukes” for short, attach themselves to reverse transcriptase and prevent the enzyme from converting RNA to DNA. In turn, HIV’s genetic material cannot be incorporated into the healthy genetic material of the cell, and prevents the cell from producing new virus.

Integrase Inhibitors

Integrase Inhibitors

After the “reverse transcription” of RNA into DNA is complete, HIV’s DNA must then be incorporated into the CD4 cell’s DNA. This is known as integration. As their name implies, integrase inhibitors work by blocking this process.

Protease Inhibitors (PIs)

Protease Inhibitors (PIs)

When HIV infects a CD4 cell in a person’s body, it copies its own genetic code into the cell’s DNA. The CD4 cell is then “programmed” to make new HIV genetic material and HIV proteins. The proteins must be cut up by the HIV protease—a protein-cutting enzyme—to make functional new HIV particles. PIs block the protease enzyme and prevent the cell from producing new viruses.

What is my risk of getting HIV?
Undergoing an HIV screening is the only way to confirm your HIV status
If you have multiple sexual partners or engage in casual sex often, you should always go for regular screenings so that any STI can be detected and treated as soon as possible.
Early intervention is essential for the optimal management of HIV.

What is the window period?
The window period is between the time a person is infected with HIV and when antibodies and other proteins associated with the virus can be detected in a rapid test kit.

Most people will develop detectable antibodies approximately 28 days (4 weeks) after infection with HIV.
Nearly everyone who is infected with HIV (99%) will have antibodies detected within three months after infection.
With the introduction of the 4th generation test kits, HIV infection can be detected from 14 days (2 weeks) after exposure.