What is HIV? How big a deal is it?

19 November 2015
Posted in General

New Zealand AIDS Foundation executive director Shaun Robinson worries that the media's outing of Sheen's up-til-now-secret diagnosis will only fuel the flames of bigotry.

"What concerns me most is this is a very public example is how people get treated - fear, bigotry and blame is often thrown at people when they have HIV," Robinson said. 

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"The biggest problem with that is it really deters people from wanting to know if they've got the disease or not.

"People who've had risky sex, they'd rather not know because they don't want to be treated like this, it really affects their well being and mental health."


HIV is a virus, full name Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which attacks your immune system and leaves your body open to picking up infection.

The disease destroys white blood cells called T-helper cells or CD4 cells with the virus replicating inside them.

It's contracted through passing certain bodily fluids - blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk - from person to person. 

Sex without a condom or barrier protection is the main form of transmission, along with blood to blood contact such as sharing needles, breastfeeding, and mother to child transmission through pregnancy and childbirth.

It can NOT be contracted through kissing or sharing food, or anything to do with saliva or urine. 


AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is what happens if HIV progresses to a critical level.

You've contracted AIDS once your T-cell count has fallen below 200 cells per cubic millimetre of blood - or 200 cells/mm3. The normal range is 500 - 1600 cells/mm3.

Because these white cells which normally fight infection have fallen to such a low level, you become more vulnerable to infections and more likely to develop diseases like cancer.

An important thing to note is that you can be HIV-positive and never get AIDS, if you correctly medicate and look after yourself.

But everyone who has AIDS is HIV-positive.


It can be hard to recognise the signs that let you know you've picked up the disease.

Symptoms in early stages can be common and flu-like - fevers, swollen glands, nausea, headaches, muscle aches and pain - and occasionally more severe - weight loss and distorted vision.

But if you've had unprotected sex, or left yourself open to contracting the disease in any way, the only way to know for sure is to be tested.

You can go to a GP who will take a blood sample, send it off to the lab and get the results a few days later.

You can also get a free rapid test through the New Zealand AIDS Foundation in most cities and towns. This requires a simple finger prick and results come in in as little as 20 minutes.

Robinson says the New Zealand AIDS Foundation is currently looking to get more funding for rapid tests, to see them in all GP offices and help speed up the process of receiving results. 

There's also home-based tests, though they are the least reliable and the AIDS foundation recommends that you either visit a doctor or a sexual health clinic. 



There are more than 30 antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, which strengthen the immune system, suppress the virus, stop HIV from progressing to AIDS, and also relieve AIDS symptoms for those who have progressed.

There's no way to cure HIV but these drug combinations, called drug cocktails, taken daily have substantially extended the lives of people who have it. 


With the right medication and attitude, it's good. People carrying the disease can live long, full lives with the antiretroviral drugs.

If HIV goes untested and untreated, it generally takes about 15 years to reach AIDS. Those who have AIDS and don't get treatment have a life expectancy of about three years.


Globally, it's thought about 35 million people live with AIDS. In New Zealand, more than 2400 are living with a positive diagnosis and it's believed about 600 people are living with it without knowing.

217 new cases were diagnosed in New Zealand last year. 

To find out more about HIV and how to get free testing, visit the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.

Source: Stuff