Basic Facts About HIV/AIDS
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What is amfAR?
amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, is
dedicated to ending the global AIDS epidemic through innovative research. With
the freedom and flexibility to respond quickly to emerging areas of scientific
promise, amfAR plays a catalytic role in accelerating the pace of HIV/AIDS
research and achieving real breakthroughs.
Among its accomplishments, amfAR provided
the essential early funding for research that contributed to the development of
four of the six classes of lifesaving HIV medications, and pioneered early studies
that eventually led to the virtual elimination of mother-to-infant HIV
transmission in many parts of the world.
Research conducted by amfAR-funded
scientists is bringing us closer to answering questions about HIV that may
eventually lead to a vaccine, new drug therapies, and even a cure.
For a monthly update on amfAR’s programs and
activities, sign up to receive amfAR e-News.
Transmission and Testing
Treatment and the Search for Solutions
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What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.
It is the virus that causes AIDS. When a person is infected with HIV, the virus
enters the body and then lives and multiplies primarily in the white blood
cells—the immune cells that normally protect us from disease.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
As HIV grows in an infected person, it damages or kills specific immune
cells, weakening the immune system and leaving the person vulnerable to
infections and illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer. Only when someone with HIV begins to
experience one or more of these conditions or loses a significant amount of
immune cells are they diagnosed with AIDS.
How do I know if I’m infected?
Immediately after infection, some people may develop mild,
temporary flu-like symptoms or persistently swollen glands. Even if you look
and feel healthy, you may be infected. The only way to know your HIV status for
sure is to be tested for HIV.
Can I tell whether someone has HIV or AIDS?
You cannot tell by looking at someone whether he or she is infected with
HIV or has AIDS. An infected person can
appear completely healthy. But anyone infected with HIV can infect other
people, even if they have no symptoms.
How quickly do people
infected with HIV develop AIDS?
In some people, AIDS develops soon after infection with HIV. But many
people do not develop symptoms for 10 to 12 years, and a few remain
symptom-free for much longer. Early detection
and treatment plays an important role in slowing the progression to AIDS and helps
many people with HIV lead relatively normal lives.
How many people are living with HIV/AIDS?
There are now roughly 34 million people living with HIV or AIDS worldwide.
Most of them do not know they are infected and may be spreading the virus to
others. In the U.S., more than one million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and
approximately 50,000 Americans
become newly infected with HIV each year. It is estimated that one-fifth of all
people with HIV in the U.S. do not know they are infected.
How is HIV transmitted?
A person who has HIV carries the virus in certain body fluids, including
blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. The virus can be transmitted
only if these HIV-infected fluids enter the bloodstream of another person. This
kind of direct entry can occur (1) through the linings of the vagina, rectum,
mouth, and the opening at the tip of the penis; (2) through intravenous
injection with a syringe; or (3) through a break in the skin, such as a cut or
sore. Usually, HIV is transmitted through:
intercourse (either vaginal or anal) with someone who has HIV.
oral sex with someone who has HIV. There are far fewer cases of HIV
transmission attributed to oral sex than to either vaginal or anal intercourse,
but oral–genital contact does pose a risk of HIV
syringes, or injection equipment with someone who has HIV. HIV can survive in used syringes for a month or
more. That’s why people who inject drugs should never reuse or share syringes or
drug preparation equipment. This includes needles or syringes used to inject both
legal and illegal drugs as well as other types of needles, such as those used
for body piercing and tattoos.
transmission during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding. Any woman who is
pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should be tested for HIV. In the
U.S., mother-to-infant transmission has dropped to just a few cases each year because
pregnant women are routinely tested for HIV. Those who test positive can get
drugs to prevent HIV from being passed on to their fetus or infant, and they
are counseled not to breast-feed.
How is HIV not transmitted?
HIV is not transmitted through food or air (for instance, by coughing or
sneezing). There has never been a case where a person was infected by a
household member, relative, coworker, or friend through casual or everyday
contact such as sharing eating utensils or bathroom facilities, or through
hugging or kissing.
In the U.S., screening the blood supply for HIV has virtually eliminated
the risk of infection through blood transfusions. And because of strict medical
precautions, you cannot get HIV from giving blood at a blood bank or other established
blood collection center.
There have been no documented cases of HIV transmission through other body
fluids such as sweat, tears, vomit, and urine. Mosquitoes, fleas, and other
insects do not transmit HIV.
Are some people at greater risk of HIV infection than others?
HIV does not discriminate. It is
not who you are but what you do that determines whether you are at risk of
becoming infected with HIV.
In the U.S., the epidemic has taken an especially heavy toll on some
More new HIV infections occur among young people ages
13 to 29 than any other age group.
More than 25 percent of Americans living with HIV are
women. In fact, women are at least twice
as likely to contract HIV through vaginal sex with infected males than vice
More than half of all new HIV infections occur in gay
men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), even though MSM represent only
two percent of the U.S. male population.
African Americans, who comprise only 14 percent of the
population, account for almost half of all new HIV infections.
Should I get tested?
If you are sexually active or are injecting drugs, you should get tested
as soon as possible.
- The survival and
long-term health of people with HIV are significantly improved by
beginning HIV treatment earlier. Getting tested and entering treatment
sooner rather than later means that you can begin to protect your health
when it matters most.
- If you are HIV
positive, you will be able to take the precautions necessary to protect
others from becoming infected, such as consistently using condoms. Treatment can also reduce your risk of
- If you are HIV
positive and pregnant, you can take medications to significantly reduce the
risk of infecting your infant.
How can I get tested?
You can be tested by your physician, at a local health clinic, or on
your own at home.
Conventional HIV tests, including one of the home test kits, the Access
HIV-1 Test System, are sent to a laboratory for testing. It can take a week or
two before the test results are available.
Today, many facilities use rapid HIV tests that can give accurate
results in as little as 20 minutes. Similarly, the OraQuick test, which can be
purchased at drugstores and used at home, requires only a mouth swab and gives results
in about 20 to 40 minutes.
Many states offer anonymous HIV testing. In most testing sites,
counselors are available to help you understand the meaning of the test results,
suggest ways you can protect yourself and others, and refer you to appropriate
How can I reduce my risk of becoming infected with HIV through sexual
If you are sexually
active, protect yourself against HIV by practicing safer sex. When used properly
and consistently, condoms are close to 99 percent effective in
preventing the transmission of HIV. But remember:
Use protection each
and every time you have sex and
limit the number of sexual partners you have.
Use only latex condoms. A dental dam─a square of latex─is recommended
for oral−genital and oral−anal sex.
Use only water-based lubricants. Latex condoms are
virtually useless when combined with oil- or petroleum-based lubricants such as
Vaseline or hand lotion.
Limit the use of alcohol or recreational drugs, which can impair
Is there a link between HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?
Practicing safer sex will help you avoid other sexually transmitted
infections (STIs), which can increase your risk of acquiring and transmitting
HIV. HIV-positive individuals who are infected with another STI are more likely
to transmit the virus through sex. And
HIV-negative individuals who are infected with another STI are up to five times
more likely to acquire HIV through sexual contact with an HIV-positive person.
How can I avoid acquiring HIV from a contaminated syringe?
If you are injecting drugs of any type, including steroids, do not share
syringes or other injection equipment with anyone else. Detailed HIV prevention
information for injecting drug users is available from the CDC’s National Prevention
Information Network at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or online at www.cdc.gov.
Should I be concerned
about HIV if I am getting a tattoo or piercing?
If you are planning to get a tattoo or have any part of your body
pierced, be sure to see a qualified professional who uses sterile equipment.
Single-use instruments that penetrate the skin should be used once, then
disposed of. Reusable instruments that
penetrate the skin should be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized between clients.
Are there treatments for HIV/AIDS?
Today, a number of drugs are available to treat HIV/AIDS. Many people
living with HIV take these drugs in combination—a regimen known as highly active
antiretroviral therapy (HAART). When taken as directed, anti-HIV treatment can
reduce the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to very low levels and sometimes
enable the body’s immune cells to rebound to normal levels. The number of AIDS-related deaths in the U.S.
has dropped dramatically because of widely available, effective treatments.
Even when patients respond well to HAART, however, it does not cure HIV. Treatment does not work for everyone.
Anti-HIV drugs are very expensive and often cause serious side effects. And because HIV mutates constantly, the virus
often develops resistance and the medications become ineffective.
Is there a vaccine to prevent HIV infection?
Despite continued intensive research, experts believe it will be many
more years before we have a safe, effective, and affordable AIDS vaccine. Until
then, other HIV prevention methods, such as practicing safer sex and using
sterile syringes, are necessary.
Is there a cure for AIDS?
While new medications are helping many infected
people live longer, healthier lives, AIDS is still a fatal disease for which
there is no cure. Nonetheless, recent scientific advances have created a
groundswell of optimism that a cure could be found.
amfAR has long been a leader in cure-focused
research and allocates more than half of its research grants to cure-focused studies.
Where can I get more information about HIV/AIDS?
There are many valuable sources of HIV/AIDS information, including:
- amfAR: www.amfar.org
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov
- The Kaiser Family Foundation’s HIV/AIDS information section: www.kff.org/hivaids
- Your state or local health department
- Your local AIDS service organization
- Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS): www.unaids.org
How can I help fight HIV/AIDS?
Everyone can play a role in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Here are
just a few suggestions for how you can make a difference:
- Volunteer with your local AIDS service organization.
- Talk with your friends and family about
- Sponsor an AIDS education event or fundraiser with
your local school, community group, or religious organization.
- Urge government
officials to provide adequate funding for AIDS research, prevention
education, medical care, and support services.
- Speak out against AIDS-related stigma and discrimination.
- Support continued
research into better treatments, new prevention methods, and ultimately a
cure for AIDS by making a donation to amfAR.