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What is HIV/AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first detected in Canada more than 25 years ago. Since then, thousands of Canadians continue to become infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) every year.

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, resulting in a chronic, progressive illness that makes people susceptible to various infections. When the immune system is too weak to fight off infections, disease advances to AIDS which is the last stage of the HIV infection. Advanced opportunistic infections during the AIDS stage can lead to death.

AIDS is a deadly disease and continues to be a global health issue. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, there are an estimated 2 million deaths worldwide due to AIDS each year. There is no cure for AIDS and currently no vaccine to prevent the infection.

HIV Infection

HIV is not transmitted through air, food, or water or through social contact, such as shaking hands, sneezing, touching, and swimming. For a person to become infected with HIV, the virus should enter the bloodstream. Thus, there is limited number of ways that a person can transmit or become infected by HIV.

The following activities can place a person at high-risk for HIV infection:

  • engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal);
  • sharing sex toys;
  • sharing needles or equipment for injecting drugs or steroids; and
  • mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, delivery, and breast-feeding.

HIV cannot be transmitted by:

  • shaking hands, hugging;
  • coughing, sneezing;
  • giving blood;
  • using swimming pools, toilet seats;
  • sharing eating utensils, water fountains;
  • mosquito and other insect bites;
  • animal bites.


The following activities pose a low risk for contracting the HIV infection, but they still carry a risk. They pose a high risk when one of the partners has a pre-existing HIV infection.

  • Unprotected oral sex poses a lower risk for HIV transmission, but a higher risk for causing other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, genital warts and syphilis.
  • Kissing, in almost all circumstances, has no risk of HIV transmission. However, kissing with the exchange of blood (when there are bleeding cuts, open sores, or ulcers present in the mouth) can still carry a low risk for HIV transmission.
  • Reusing or sharing needles for tattooing, skin piercing, electrolysis, or acupuncture carry a low risk for HIV transmission and a high risk for the transmission of other blood-borne infections, such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
  • Exposure to blood and bodily fluids in an occupational setting (for example, in an emergency response or a medical environment) carries a low risk if infection-control precautions are followed.





Even without treatment, it can take many years for an HIV-infected person to develop noticeable symptoms. That is why people can be unaware that they are infected with HIV. For example, at the end of 2008, 26% of the people in Canada who were living with HIV did not know they were infected. If people have HIV and do not know it, they may unknowingly infect others by not taking proper precautions during sex, or while injecting drugs. The only way to confirm if you are infected is through a blood test.

Minimizing Your Risk

HIV is not an easy virus to transmit. It can only be passed from body to body through blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

There are several steps a person can take to reduce the risk of infection with HIV.

1. If you decide to have sex, discuss HIV and other sexually transmitted infections with your sexual partner, and only have sex with a partner who agrees to have safe sex.

To practice safer sex:

Use a latex or polyurethane condom or a female condom consistently and correctly whenever you have anal or vaginal sex;
Use a latex or polyurethane condom or a dental dam consistently and correctly every time you have oral sex;
Use only water-based lubricants with latex condoms, as oil-based lubricants like Vaseline, can weaken a latex condom and cause it to break;
Don’t share sex toys without properly cleaning them first; and
Refrain from kissing when there is the possibility of blood exchange via bleeding cuts, open sores, or ulcers in the mouth.

2. If you are injecting drugs or steroids, practice safer injection:
Never share needles or injection equipment; and
Always use a new needle and new injection equipment (cookers, spoons, water, etc.) every time you inject.

3. If you are pregnant and concerned about HIV, talk to your doctor about being tested. Early treatment with medication can prevent the transmission of HIV from a mother to her baby.

4. If you are getting a tattoo, body piercing, electrolysis, or acupuncture, ensure these activities are only carried out by professionals who follow universal infection-control precautions similar to those used in hospitals. The law requires that all needles used in these procedures are used only once and are disposed of after use.

5. If you are exposed to bodily fluids in an occupational setting, follow applicable health and safety guidelines and universal infection-control precautions. If accidental exposure to these fluids occurs through a needle-stick or a sharp-object injury or through a skin puncture, follow organizational guidelines or, in the absence of guidelines, let the wound bleed freely and go to a hospital emergency room as soon as possible.

Remember, if you have engaged in risky behaviour, get an HIV test.

Treating HIV/AIDS and Living with HIV/AIDS

A positive diagnosis for HIV infection can change your life forever. There is no cure for HIV infection. Treatments, known as antiretrovirals, only suppress the virus replication in the body and disrupt the action of the virus. Advances in treatment have helped prolong the lives and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS. However, antiretrovirals, do not cure. If treatment is discontinued, the virus becomes active again. Therefore, a person on antiretrovirals must take them for life.

Like all medications, HIV drugs can cause side effects. In most cases, the side effects are mild, like a headache or an upset stomach. In some cases, more serious side effects can happen, such as severe skin rashes and liver damage. However, many of the HIV drugs have not been on the market long enough for all the possible long-term effects to have been discovered. Some drug treatments for HIV also fail because some new strains of the virus have developed drug resistance (mutations).

HIV in Canada

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates that approximately 65,000 people were living with HIV infection in Canada at the end of 2008–a 14% increase from 2005. PHAC also estimates that in Canada, in 2008, there were from 2,300 to 4,300 new HIV infections.

According to estimates of HIV Prevalence and Incidence in Canada, 2008, men who have sex with men continue to be the group most affected by HIV/AIDS in Canada. Estimates can be classified according to the following exposure categories for new infections:

44% were men who have sex with men;
17% were people who use injection drugs;
3% were men who have sex with men and use injection drugs;
36% were heterosexuals.

At the end of 2008, women living with HIV accounted for approximately 22% of the national total. Aboriginal peoples account for a disproportionately high percentage of the individuals living with HIV infection in Canada. Although Aboriginal peoples represented only 3.8% of the Canadian population in the 2006 census, they accounted for approximately 7.4% of individuals living with HIV and for 12.5% of those who were newly infected.

Similarly, people from countries where HIV is endemic (mainly countries of sub-Saharan Africa) also represent a disproportionate percentage of the total number of HIV infections in Canada. In 2008, individuals who originated from a country where HIV is endemic accounted for 16% of estimated new infections in Canada, an infection rate of almost 8.5 times higher than among other Canadians.

Source: Health Canada