World AIDS Day is commemorated each year on the 1st of December and is an opportunity for every community to unite in the fight against HIV, show support for people living with HIV and remember those who have died.
AIDS can affect anyone. But it is clear that it is spreading faster to people who live in poverty and lack access to education, basic health services, nutrition and clean water. Young people and women are the most vulnerable. Women are often powerless to insist on safe sex and easily become infected by HIV positive partners. When people have other diseases like sexually transmitted diseases, TB or malaria they are also more likely to contract and die from AIDS.
What is AIDS and how do you get it?
AIDS means Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is a disease that destroys your ability to fight other infections through your immune system. You get AIDS from a virus called HIV – Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
People who get HIV can stay healthy for many years and most infected people do not even know that they are HIV positive. There are no visible signs to show that a person is infected. They can pass the disease on to other people by having unprotected sex with them.
The second phase of the disease is when you get AIDS and start becoming ill more easily. AIDS itself does not kill people – they usually die from other infections like flu, diarrhoea, pneumonia or TB. Poor people who are not well nourished and live in bad conditions, tend to become ill and die much sooner than others.
Some of the symptoms of a person living with AIDS could be losing weight very quickly and getting ill often with things like flu or pneumonia or stomach problems.
There are only three ways to get AIDS: unprotected sex, contact with infected blood or body fluids and mother to baby transmission.
This is the most common way that people get AIDS. If you have sex with an HIV positive person and there is direct contact between the penis and vagina or anus, you can easily get infected. The virus lives in the fluids inside the penis and vagina and can easily enter your bloodstream. Using condoms properly is the only protection against this kind of infection.
Contact with infected blood.
If you have an open wound and it comes into contact with the blood of an HIV positive person, you can get infected. This contact could be through using the same needles for drugs or unsafe instruments used for circumcision. You can also get it from blood transfusions if the blood is contaminated [in SA all blood is screened]. Medical workers can get it from accidentally pricking themselves with needles they have used to inject HIV positive people.
Mother to baby transmission.
HIV positive mothers can pass the infection to their babies, although this does not happen in all cases. Transmission can happen during pregnancy, or childbirth because of the contact with blood, or during breast feeding.
You cannot get AIDS from kissing someone on the lips, hugging, sharing food and drink or using the same bath or toilet as someone who is HIV positive. [Deep kissing or French kissing can pass on HIV if you have sores in your mouth]
Anyone can get AIDS, but some people are more vulnerable because they do not have the power to say no to unprotected sex or because of their risky lifestyles. The groups who are most vulnerable and have the highest infection rates are:
Young women between 15 – 30 years old
Sexually active men who have more than one partner, with young men more common
Migrant and mine workers
Drug users who use needles
People who practice anal sex
Young women are most vulnerable because they often powerless to say no to unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner. They are also the most common victims of rape and sexual abuse. Young girls who are virgins are also at risk because of the myth that a person can be cured of AIDS by having sex with a virgin. This is total rubbish and is just an excuse for child abuse.
The other groups are vulnerable because many of them have a number of different sexual partners and they do not always practice safe sex. Drug users may share needles without sterilising them first. Anal sex is more dangerous because the anus has no natural lubrication and this often results in injuries during sex. Condoms are also not designed to be strong enough for anal sex.