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What is HIV

Even if you have heard of HIV you might not know all the facts. Understanding HIV is essential for us to be able to understand this virus and end the stigma against those infected.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus, also known as a retrovirus. It is a virus that attacks the body’s natural immune system – your body’s “good guys” who fight off other infection and disease.

HIV attacks the immune system by infecting and killing the body’s white blood cells that help fend off infections in the body. These cells are also called CD4 lymphocytes or ‘T cells’.]

If too many white blood cells are destroyed, this ‘count’ can become very low. When this happens, the body can no longer defend itself effectively and can become ill from infections that a healthy immune system would easily combat.

If someone receives no treatment for HIV they can develop AIDS, which can be often fatal. Most people, however, will progress to severe immunodeficiency within 10 to 12 years if treatment is not received. understanding HIV and ending stigma will greatly reduce the number of HIV infections and get those living with HIV effective treatment.

If you have HIV and you are not on ART, eventually the virus will weaken your body’s immune system and you will progress to AIDS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection. People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they get an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic infections.

Symptoms can include:

  1. Rapid weight loss.
  2. Recurring fever or profuse night sweats.
  3. Extreme and unexplained tiredness.
  4. Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck.
  5. Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week.
  6. Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals.
  7. Pneumonia.
  8. Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids.
  9. Memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders.

Each of these symptoms can also be related to other illnesses. So the only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested.

An important step in understanding HIV and fighting against HIV stigma is to understand the facts.

Here are the facts:

  • Most people acquire HIV through unprotected sex with another person, though it can also be contracted through other methods such as sharing drug needles. HIV can be transmitted through blood, breast milk, semen or vaginal fluids of people living with HIV who have not suppressed HIV through effective treatment.
  • HIV is extremely vulnerable outside the body and cannot be acquired through physical contact such as kissing. Oral sex carries an extremely low risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV.
  • HIV transmission through sex can be prevented by using condoms and other safe sex practices. Using clean needles, as well as not sharing needles, is also an effective method of preventing HIV transmission.
  • HIV infection lasts for life and a treatment to totally eradicate it from the body has not yet been developed. However, the good news is that there is an effective treatment that controls HIV, restores immune functioning and prevents it from progressing to AIDS.

Understanding your blood results

HIV and its progression is measured by your Clinics and health professionals by sending a small amount of blood to a testing lab. The testing lab will be looking to supply the clinic two main blood counts.  The small drop of blood (1ml) will be used to look for two markers.


In each drop of blood, they will count the number of healthy CD4 or also called T Cells. These are healthy fighting cells.  Most average healthy people, without any current health issues, will normally have a CD4 count of around 1000 to 1400 cells. Someone living with HIV and untreated can have anywhere from under 50 copies upwards. If your count is below 200 you will need to start treatment immediately. This is very low and the chances are you are feeling unwell already.

Viral Load.  

In the same drop of blood they will look for your Viral Load. These are the amount of HIV cells in that sample.  If you have a Viral Load of under 50 copies that is great and at this point the HIV virus is suppressed. Your count left untreated will rise and can run into millions though this is rare.

The key to success with HIV treatment is to have a high CD4 Count and a very low Viral load count. Medication stops the virus replicating and therefore the Viral Load is low and CD4 high.

We asked our team to tell us their last blood results to give you an idea. We are all on treatment so because of this our Viral Load is low under 50 copies and our CD4 is good. We are what is generally called virally suppressed. This means we are undetectable and we now know scientifically that is someone has an undetectable viral load (or under 50 copies) they cannot pass the virus to someone else. This is why treatment is so important. Firstly, because you will feel healthy and secondly you are no longer infectious to someone else.

Staff Member

  1. VL -50 CD4 820
  2. VL -50 CD4 982
  3. VL -50 CD4 723
  4. VL -50 CD4 634
  5. VL -50 CD4 1002

These are all good results even though the numbers are different for each person. In simple terms the higher the Viral Load the lower the CD4. Once the viral load is controlled with medication the CD4 will rise leaving you feeling much healthier and a low risk to others.

Shaping the future for all people living with HIV in Africa

Effective Treatment Africa NPO 198-463.