We're now Burnett Foundation Aotearoa

Ending HIV & New Zealand AIDS Foundation have changed our name to Burnett Foundation Aotearoa, after one of our founders - Bruce Burnett. Find out more

Whakaruhi Ārai Mate

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is a part of the group of viruses called ‘retroviruses’. HIV attacks a person’s immune system by getting into the blood stream and working to kill off healthy immune cells.

Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, it stays in their system for life – as there is no cure available yet. However, there are many medications available to enable people living with HIV to live long, healthy lives.

How does HIV work?

HIV invades cells within the body and goes on to continually reproduce itself.

Normally, the body’s immune system would fight off such a virus, but HIV stops this from happening by infecting CD4 cells (T-cells), which are the cells that fight off infections. The virus can live in the body for years without causing any obvious damage, though it will continue replicating itself over time.

Left untreated, HIV can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system to the point where opportunistic infections and cancers can’t be fought off. This stage of HIV infection, where a compromised immune system results in other serious illnesses taking hold, is what is known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). However, the vast majority of people living with HIV who are on treatment will never develop AIDS.

How is it transmitted?

As HIV is primarily found in genital secretions (including semen and vaginal fluid) and blood, it can be transmitted by passing from person to person through these bodily fluids.

The main ways HIV can be passed on are:

  • Unprotected anal, front-hole or vaginal sex
  • Sharing injecting equipment
  • From mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or through breastfeeding

There are ways to prevent HIV transmission in all these situations:

  • Using condomsPrEP or U=U as a prevention strategy will stop transmission during sex
  • New, unused injecting equipment removes the risk of HIV transmission – head to the Needle Exchange for more information
  • For mums living with HIV, maintaining effective treatment throughout pregnancy and avoiding breastfeeding can halt onward transmission to babies.

It’s also very important to know the ways HIV isn’t transmitted. For example, HIV cannot be transmitted by:

  • Any skin-to-skin contact
  • Kissing
  • Sharing food
  • Protected sex (condoms, PrEP or U=U)
  • Living in the same space
  • Can I acquire HIV from kissing someone living with HIV?
    That's right, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and it can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with an HIV positive person.
    Nope, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and it can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with an HIV positive person.
    no
  • Can I acquire HIV from sharing a drinking glass with someone living with HIV?
    That's right, HIV can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with someone living with HIV.
    Nope, HIV can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with someone living with HIV.
    no
  • Can I acquire HIV from hugging someone living with HIV?
    That's right, HIV is not transmitted via skin contact.
    Nope, HIV is not transmitted via skin contact.
    no
  • Can I acquire HIV from eating food prepared by someone living with HIV?
    Correct! No, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and, even if the food contained small amounts of HIV-infected blood or semen, exposure to the air would destroy the virus.
    No, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and, even if the food contained small amounts of HIV-infected blood or semen, exposure to the air would destroy the virus.
    no

That's right, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and it can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with an HIV positive person.

FACTS & MYTHS

Can I acquire HIV from kissing someone living with HIV?

Nope, HIV is not transmitted through saliva and it can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with an HIV positive person.

How do I know if I've acquired HIV?

HIV can be detected by taking a test – head to our testing page to find out more about the types of tests available.

Anyone who is sexually active should be testing for HIV at least twice a year to make sure they know their status and to detect HIV as early as possible.

It’s important to detect HIV early, as treatment should be started as soon as possible after exposure to ensure the best health outcomes (including quickly reaching an undetectable viral load – which means HIV cannot be transmitted sexually).  

Without testing, it’s impossible to know if you might be living with undiagnosed HIV as symptoms can vary hugely from person to person. Some people may not present symptoms until they become very sick. Others may develop a flu-like illness soon after exposure – often called ‘seroconversion’ illness as this tends to be when your body develops antibodies in reaction to HIV being present in your system. In other words, the presence of any symptoms, or lack of symptoms, does not tell whether you are living with HIV or not.

Worried about the risk of an encounter?

 You can use our tool to find out your risk & best next steps.

 

What happens if I’m diagnosed with HIV?

To start with, take a deep breath. Getting the news can be a lot to take in, but it’s important to remember that modern HIV treatments are very effective, and you are not going to die. In fact, if you start and continue treatment, you are most likely to live a long, healthy life, just as those not living with HIV.

Once you are on treatment, it is very likely you will soon reach what is called an undetectable viral load. This means that the level of the virus can no longer be measured in your system by standard viral load tests. While, this doesn’t mean you no longer have HIV, it does mean that it can no longer be transmitted sexually – even if you don’t use condoms at all!

Did you know...

People living with HIV who are on antiretroviral treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months do not sexually transmit HIV.

 

Want to learn more or have an in-depth workshop with your colleagues or classroom?

We run free workshops aimed at raising awareness of HIV and AIDS in Aotearoa New Zealand, providing latest updates on HIV prevention strategies, and promoting our vision of ending new HIV transmissions in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our workshop covers a range of topics including: 

  • The basics of HIV; 
  • HIV prevention strategies including Stay Safe, Test Often, and Treat Early; 
  • Living with HIV and challenging HIV stigma;

Each workshop runs for approximately an hour, and we can tailor the content based on the duration requested and the type of audience. You can book our workshop by filling out the form here

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is an advanced form of HIV. Not everyone that has HIV develops AIDS, largely thanks to advances in medications.

AIDS can develop when HIV weakens a person’s immune system so their body is no longer able to protect itself against infections and diseases that a normal immune system would fight off.

As a result, a person living with HIV may show symptoms of different infections and diseases called opportunistic infections. When someone shows symptoms of one or more of these infections, they are considered to have developed AIDS.

Different people with AIDS may experience different clinical issues, depending on what specific opportunistic infections they develop.

People who are diagnosed with AIDS can recover and regain their health, but they will still be HIV positive.

Opportunistic infections

HIV weakens the immune system by attacking the CD4 cells (or T-cells, a subset of the white blood cells) in a person. So, an already stressed immune system is vulnerable and presents an opportunity for other infections and viruses to cause people living with HIV to become ill.

While people who don’t have HIV can get opportunistic infections because of other health complications like cancer, people with HIV are more likely to develop them. Opportunistic infections are more frequent and more severe in people living with HIV, and can often lead to an AIDS diagnosis.

As your doctor monitors your general health, CD4 counts and viral load, you can keep an eye on any risks from opportunistic infections. Nowadays, studies show that the use of anti-HIV medication is delaying opportunistic infections that may have otherwise occurred in the past. It is important that those living with HIV stay on treatment, as stopping treatment may increase the risk of opportunistic infections.

HIV FAQs

What are the signs/symptoms of having HIV?

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Not everyone who gets HIV will experience any short-term symptoms. So, symptoms or not, it's important to test twice a year - or more often if you haven't been playing safe.  In some people, symptoms may occur from two to four weeks after HIV infection and may include flu-like symptoms that are easily confused with other infections, such as fatigue, fever, night sweats, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, headache, loss of appetite or skin rash. These symptoms usually last less than two weeks although they can last as long as 10 weeks. If you‘ve recently had unprotected anal sex and experience any of these symptoms, you should have an HIV test with NZAF, your emergency room, GP or sexual health service.

Also, keep in mind that not all doctors will recognise the symptoms of HIV. If you see a doctor because you have one of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to explain that you feel at risk of HIV and ask to be tested, even if they don't suggest it. Don't assume you will be tested for HIV just because they take your blood. Ask to be sent a copy of the results.

What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is a virus that attacks the immune system, killing off healthy immune system cells that normally fight off infection. HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, anal mucous, vaginal fluid and breast milk.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is the term used to indicate complete deterioration and destruction of immune function - the final stage of HIV. People with HIV who are on consistent antiretroviral (ARV) treatment can expect to lead long and healthy lives and may never progress to AIDS.

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