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Answers to your HIV/AIDS FAQs

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Can you catch HIV from a mosquito bite? Is the blood supply in the United States safe? How long after infection with the virus does it take for full-blown AIDS to develop? The answers may surprise you. Read on for responses to these and other commonly asked questions.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is an acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a condition believed to be caused by a virus called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus attacks the immune system, the body’s line of defense against disease and infections. When the immune system breaks down, one becomes susceptible to serious, often deadly infections and cancers called opportunistic infections, so named because they take advantage of the body’s weakened defenses.

Is it true that you can’t “die of AIDS?”

Yes. It is the opportunistic infections that cause death. AIDS is the condition that lets them take hold.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread by sexual contact with an infected person, by needle-sharing among injecting drug users or through transfusions of infected blood or blood clotting factors.

HIV-infected pregnant women can transmit the virus to their newborns before or during birth, or through breast-feeding after birth.

Health-care workers have been infected with HIV after being stuck with needles containing HIV-infected blood. Infected blood can also get into the worker’s bloodstream through an open cut or splashes into the eyes or inside the nose, though infection via this route is rare.

I’ve heard that the blood supply is now safe of HIV. Is that true?

In the Unites States, yes. Since 1985, all donated blood has been tested for evidence for HIV, and all tainted blood is discarded. In the United States, there is now only a very small chance of infection with HIV through a blood transfusion.

It’s also true that you cannot get HIV by giving blood. The needles used for blood donations are sterile, used once, then destroyed.

Blood screening practices vary from country to country. If you are travelling abroad, you may want to check on that country’s policy in the event you should need a transfusion.

How long after infection with HIV does it take for AIDS to develop?

About half of people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years, but the time between infection and onset of AIDS can vary greatly. The severity of the HIV-related illness or illnesses differs from person to person and is dependent on many factors, including overall health status.

Today there are promising new medical treatments that can postpone many of the illnesses associated with AIDS. This is a step in the right direction, and scientists are becoming optimistic that HIV infection will someday be manageable in the same way as a chronic disorder such as diabetes.

Can I catch AIDS from an HIV-infected health-care worker?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk is extremely low. There has been only one proven case in which patients became infected by a health-care worker — a dentist.

Can I catch HIV from a mosquito bite?

No. Studies conducted by researchers at the CDC and elsewhere have shown no evidence of HIV transmission through insects — even in areas where there are many cases of AIDS and large populations of insects such as mosquitoes.

I heard that one of the cafeteria workers at my school has AIDS. Should I avoid eating food he has touched?

Studies of thousands of households where families have lived with and cared for AIDS patients have found no instances of nonsexual transmission, despite the sharing of kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities, meals, eating utensils and drinking cups and glasses. If HIV is not transmitted in these settings, where repeated and prolonged contact occurs, transmission is even less likely in other settings, such as schools and offices. Similarly, there is no known risk of HIV transmission in food-service establishments.

Is it OK to “French” kiss an infected person?

Because of the theoretical potential for contact with blood during “French,” or open-mouthed, kissing, the CDC recommends against engaging in this activity with an infected person. However, no case of AIDS reported to the CDC can be attributed to transmission through any kind of kissing.

Does it matter what types of condom we use to protect ourselves against HIV?

Yes. In lab tests, viruses passed through natural membrane (“skin” or lambskin) condoms, which contain natural pores and are therefore not recommended for disease prevention. On the other hand, laboratory studies have consistently demonstrated that latex condoms can provide up to 99 percent protection against pregnancy and most sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection — if they are used consistently and correctly.

Should I be tested for HIV?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you shared needles or syringes to inject drugs or steroids?
  • If you are a male, have you had sex with other males?
  • Have you had multiple sex partners?
  • Have you had sex with a partner whose sexual and drug history is unknown to you?
  • Have you had sex with someone who you believe may have been infected with HIV?
  • Have you had a sexually transmitted disease?
  • Have you received blood transfusions or blood products between 1978 and 1985?
  • Have you had unprotected sex with someone who would answer “yes” to any of the above questions?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you should be tested.

SOURCES: CDC, UCSF, Gay Men’s Health Crisis