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John Bell Column 28 Nov 2012

Pharmacy Self Care Health Facts Column
By John Bell –28 Nov 2012



HIV/AIDS, getting to zero


One of the themes for World AIDS Day is “getting to zero”. The realisation of that aim seems a long way off, but the latest report from UNAids (the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS) indicated a significant decline in new infections worldwide amongst both adults and children and an increasing number of people on antiretrovirals (ARVs) – the medicines used to suppress the virus and prevent the progression of the disease.

It’s now more than 30 years since the first reported case of AIDS; and although the number of deaths globally has fallen for the fifth year in a row (to around 1.7 million people in 2001) there are still about 7000 new HIV infections diagnosed every day.

And we have no cause for complacency in Australia. Over the past five years here the number of HIV infections diagnosed has been stable at about 1000 per year; however in 2011 there was an 8% increase on the previous year.

Twenty four years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared 1 December the first World AIDS Day.  Its aim was, and remains, to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS issues, and particularly the need for support and understanding for people living with HIV/AIDS.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.  It is primarily transmitted in blood, semen and vaginal fluids via unprotected sex or sharing injecting equipment.  HIV belongs to a group of viruses called retroviruses and HIV has been identified as the virus that causes AIDS.

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is not a single disease.  It is a broad range of conditions that occur when a person’s immune system is seriously damaged after years of attack by the HIV.  The terms HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable.  It is important to remember that a person who is infected with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS.  However, all people with AIDS have been infected with HIV.

HIV damages the body’s immune system and renders the body vulnerable to other diseases and infections – its symptoms are most commonly similar to those of any chronic viral infection.  During advanced stages of HIV infection, a person may develop any of a number of so-called opportunistic infections considered to be AIDS defining illnesses.

The ability of HIV to live outside the body is very limited and, therefore, HIV is not particularly easy to transmit.  It is a communicable disease, but it is not contagious like air-borne viruses such as influenza.  HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, coughing or sneezing.  Nor can it be transmitted by sharing glasses, cups or utensils or by insect bite.

There are three main modes of HIV transmission: unprotected anal and vaginal sexual intercourse; sharing drug injecting equipment; and mother to child transmission during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.

Exposure to HIV contaminated blood is another potential route of transmission.  Injecting drug users who share needles and syringes are at risk of HIV infection because there is often a small amount of blood left in the syringe after injection.  So there are times when sharing is not always caring.

This type of exposure can also occur during skin piercing and tattooing procedures if equipment has not been properly sterilised after having previously being used on someone with HIV.  Body piercing or tattooing should always be undertaken at licensed studios that use new inkpots for each procedure and disposable needles or an autoclave to sterilise equipment.

You can get more information about HIV and AIDS from pharmacies around Australia providing the Pharmaceutical Society’s Self Care health information (ask for the HIV/AIDS fact card). For the nearest “Self Care” pharmacy, phone 1300 369 772 or log onto the website Click on Self Care then Find a Self Care Pharmacy.


Article courtesy of the Pharmacy Self Care Program, an initiative of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.