Get the facts
WHAT IS HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that can weaken the immune system. It can come into the body through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and rectal fluids. Fluids like saliva and urine, and casual contact like touching, can't pass it on.
Symptoms of HIV can be general and easily mistaken for other illnesses, so try to not freak out if you notice something different about your body, and sometimes HIV can have no symptoms at all. The best way to know whether you are living with HIV is to get tested.
HIV also can't be passed on by people living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load, having taken treatment for at least 6 months.
More detailed information on HIV can be found here.
WHAT IS AIDS?
HIV is not the same as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
AIDS is the most advanced stage of living with HIV without treatment. It's very rare in Australia, occurring only when the immune system is very weak. When a person starts taking medicine for HIV early, they will live a long and healthy life, not develop AIDS, and not pass on HIV.
WHAT IS A UNDETECTABLE VIRAL LOAD?
Undetectable viral load, sometimes written as U+, means that a person is living with HIV but the level of the virus is so low that we can't detect it in their blood. Generally, they’ve been taking treatment for 6 months. This stops HIV from making copies of itself, allowing the immune system to remove the virus. And because so much of it is removed from their body, a person with an undetectable viral load still has HIV but can’t pass it on, or more simply, Undetectable = Untransmittable.
WHAT IS PrEP?
What is PrEP (medicine that prevents HIV)?
PrEP is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It's a medicine you can take every day to prevent HIV. It works the same way as HIV treatment: by stopping HIV from making copies of itself. And when HIV can’t do this, it can prevent it from setting up in your body. PrEP is a very effective way to protect yourself from HIV. To get it, you need to get a prescription from your doctor or a sexual health clinic and then buy it from a pharmacy. With a Medicare card, it costs about $41 each month, and if you also have a concession card, it only costs about $6 per month.
How do I get PrEP without a Medicare card?
If you don’t have a Medicare card, you can still access PrEP. If you’re in Brisbane, the best place to go to see a doctor is Metro North Sexual Health and HIV Service (phone: (07) 3837 5611). Their website can be found here.
The doctors there will see you for free and your blood tests will be free, too. The doctor will give you a prescription that you can use to order PrEP online. More information on how to order PrEP online can be found here – but you need to get your prescription first. Generally, PrEP will cost between $20 and $40 per month, depending on the exchange rate.
WHAT CAN I DO IF I HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO HIV?
PEP is short for post-exposure prophylaxis. It's a medicine that you take to prevent HIV after potentially encountering the virus. PEP works the same way as PrEP and HIV medicines: by stopping HIV from making copies of itself. And when HIV can’t do this, it can prevent it from setting up in your body. PEP only works if started within 72 hours after sex or sharing injecting equipment. And sooner rather than later is recommended – ideally, within 24 hours.
Only special doctors can give out PEP, and a list of these doctors can be found here. You can also get PEP from public hospital emergency departments, which is a good option if you need PEP over the weekend or outside business hours. More information on what PEP is and how it works can be found here.
STIGMA AND DISCRIMINATION
HIV does not discriminate, people do. Stigma and discrimination will continue to exist so long as societies as a whole continue to judge people living with HIV. You can help change this by encouraging others not to judge.
UNDERSTANDING AND SUPPORTING PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV
HIV can affect anyone, and people living with HIV often feel isolated because of their fear of being discriminated against and not being accepted.
Feeling accepted and having ongoing support available can make a big difference in helping people deal with the physical and emotional challenges HIV brings.
World AIDS Day, held on 1 December each year, is a significant opportunity to show your support for people living with HIV. Even the simplest gestures-such as wearing a red ribbon pin- can go a long way to showing that you care and help to break down community stigmas.
Another way to support people living with HIV is to engage friends and family in a conversation about HIV, taking the opportunity to increase understanding, decrease stigma and dispel the myths that still exist in our society.
If you know someone who is living with HIV, it is important to remember that there are services and organisations that can provide assistance to them if needed. These services and organisations can offer you advice on how you can support people living with, or closely affected by HIV.