What is HIV / AIDS?

HIV is slowly, but steadily, spreading across Alberta. Gay or straight, rural or urban, male or female – the virus doesn’t play favorites.

You can avoid almost all risks of HIV infection by following a few steps. These steps my be straightforward, but talking about them and putting them into practice can often be harder. Read on, help is available.
The Basics About HIV:

  • HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) attacks the body’s immune system, gradually leading to the life-threatening disease called AIDS.
  • There is no vaccine for HIV infection. The only way to prevent infection is to avoid risk.
  • HIV is most often spread through sexual intercourse (anal, vaginal), sharing needles and syringes, or from an infected mother to her baby.
  • People can look and feel well, and still spread HIV. To be sure whether or not you’re infected, an HIV antibody blood test is required.

The Facts

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What am I doing that puts me at risk of HIV?

First remember that:

  • HIV is NOT being spread by insect bites, toilet seats, food handling, hugs and kisses.
  • Since November 1985, the Canadian blood supply has been screened for HIV antibodies.
  • The virus is not being spread by health care workers in Canada.

Let’s be honest. The spread of HIV is being driven by unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles. If these behaviours were stopped, new infections would soon be rare.

What about sex and HIV?

Some sex is risky, some is safer, most falls somewhere in between. Take control, and you will know that your choices do not put you or others at risk.

Your risk increases every time you come in contact with the semen, vaginal fluid or blood of someone who may be infected. These are fluids where HIV is found in amounts high enough to infect others.

You are at high risk if you don’t know if your partner is free of infection, and you:

  • Have anal intercourse without using a condom.
  • Have vaginal intercourse without using a condom.
  • Swap dildos, vibrators or other sex toys without washing them between uses in warm water and soap or bleach.
  • Having sex with only one person, or being monogamous, doesn’t necessarily protect your from HIV infection or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Ask yourself:

  • How long have I been with this one partner?
  • Have I been at risk in the last 10 years?
  • Has my partner been at risk in the last 10 years?
  • Do I know that my partner does not have other sexual relationships or share needles?

Remember, with unsafe sex you are really being exposed to every sexual partner your partner ever had, every partner your partner’s partner ever had, and so on and so on you greatly reduce your chances of getting HIV infection if you practice safer sex. This means, instead of intercourse with no condom, you properly use a latex condom every time you have anal or vaginal intercourse.

Safer sex means not coming in direct contact with another person’s blood, semen or vaginal fluids. A few examples:

  • Kissing
  • Hugging
  • Massaging
  • Petting and masturbating (if the vagina or anus is entered, make sure hands don’t have cuts on them).
  • But be warned, you are at risk if these activities end up being foreplay to unprotected intercourse.

How safe is oral sex?

In the 1980s, there were concerns that oral sex (mouth to penis, mouth to vagina) might be very risky, because semen and vaginal fluids can carry HIV. Now, with more knowledge about how the virus is spread, it appears that oral sex is much less risky than either anal or vaginal intercourse. Oral sex with a latex condom or dental dam is considered safe. Without this type of protection, chances for HIV infection are small but not zero, keeping in mind that all risks increase with the frequency of the activity.

HIV can be found in blood. So remember:

  • Do NOT brush or floss your teeth and gums before having oral sex.
  • Do NOT have oral sex if either partner has sores around the mouth, penis or vagina.
  • Do NOT have (mouth to vagina) oral sex during a woman’s period.

One other caution, some other STD’s are spread easily through oral sex.

What about alcohol and other drug use?

Drug use can be risky in two different ways. First, you can’t think as clearly when you are drunk or stoned. In fact, in a survey Albertans report drinking as a major cause of unsafe sex. Second, injecting drugs with shared needles and syringes is one of the most risky things you can do.

How risky is sharing needles?

Sharing needles and syringes is getting more dangerous as HIV is spreading among injection drug users in Alberta. If you inject, you won’t be at risk if you do NOT share. Use only new, sterilized equipment. If you share needles, you are putting someone’s blood directly into your blood. Using unclean needles for steroids, tattooing or body piercing is dangerous, too. If you must share, clean needles and syringes first by flushing full strength bleach through the works at least 3 times. Tap the filled syringe a few times to loosen any dried blood that might still be in the needle. Then rinse it through 3 times with clean water. Cleaning needles reduces the risk of HIV infection.

How does the HIV Virus work?

HIV attacks the Helper T cells (T4 cells), a type of white blood cell instrumental in fighting disease. In the HIV reproduction process, a T4 cell is used by a viral cell to manufacture two viral cells in its place. The body’s ability to fight diseases decreases and the HIV positive individual becomes sick with diseases that are not normally a risk to healthy individuals (called Opportunistic Infections). Therefore, a person sick with AIDS is not a risk to healthy individuals. When the individual’s T4 cell count has dropped low enough, the viral load is high enough and they are diagnosed with one or more Opportunistic infections, they are diagnosed with AIDS. Individuals may die within a short time of this diagnosis or they may regain their health. Medications have been developed that prevent opportunistic infections and that combat the HIV replication process. For this reason, HIV+ people are living longer, both before and after becoming sick with AIDS.

Do condoms work?

Condoms, like vows of abstinence, can break and slip. However, if you choose to have intercourse, you greatly reduce your risk by using latex condoms correctly. Don’t be shy about buying condoms. Hundreds of thousands are sold every day. To the person selling them, you are just another customer. It is very common for people to use condoms only some of the time. That is a weak strategy for dealing with a life-threatening illness.

Your protection by condoms improves a lot if you take a few simple steps:

  • Use latex condoms every time you have intercourse, no matter what other methods of birth control you may use. Latex acts as a two-way barrier to protect both partners from HIV and most other STIs.
  • A little lubrication on the inside and outside of the condom improves the feel and ease of entering. Only use water-based lubricants such as saliva, KY JellyTM, MukoTM, and Elbow GreaseTM.
  • NEVER use VaselineTM, petroleum jelly, baby oil, cooking oil or anything else that is oil based. Oil based substances destroy latex in seconds.
  • Latex, just like rubber bands, become brittle over time or under extreme conditions. Do NOT keep condoms in your wallet or car glove compartments. Keep out of direct sunlight and away from heat or cold. Check the expiry date of the condoms, found on either the package or box. Throw out old condoms and buy fresh ones.
  • Most important, plan ahead. An extra trip to the store just to buy condoms doesn’t always fit with the mood. You are more likely to practice safer sex if condoms are nearby.
  • If you know you are about to have intercourse, take the condom out of the package before foreplay. This way it will be ready when you are.

Does nonoxynol-9 kill HIV?

Nonoxynol-9 is found in contraceptive foams, jellies and lubricated condoms. It helps kill HIV as well as sperm . But, do NOT depend on jelly or foam to stop HIV. A condom is far more effective. NEVER use Nonoxynol-9 during anal sex: it causes irritation. Also, stop using it during vaginal sex if it causes irritation. Try rubbing some on the inside of your wrist and see if your skin turns red. If you do react, you are worse off using Nonoxynol-9 then not.

How do I use condoms for safer sex?

If you are not used to condoms, take one out of the package when you are alone. Being familiar with them will make you more comfortable. There is nothing complicated about condoms. They come in different shapes, sizes, textures and even flavours.

Instructional Video for Putting on a Condom

How can I convince my partner to practice safer sex?

You don’t need to apologize for protecting yourself. Safer sex is for both partners. If either of you has had any other sexual or needle-sharing partners you could be infected, and you run the risk of infecting each other.

One approach doesn’t work in all situations, but there are some helpful hints that might work for you. Do NOT wait until you are in the heat of passion or until you have had a few drinks to talk to your partner. In a calm but firm way, tell your partner that you, like many others, believe in and practice safer sex.

Sometimes it seems easier to have sex than to talk about it. Try mixing humour in with understanding and knowledge. If you are clear about abstinence or condoms, you won’t have to constantly rehash the “sex issue” with the same partner.

Testing Information

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How can I tell if I have HIV?

The only way to be certain is to have an HIV antibody blood test.

Why should I get tested?

If you have been at risk testing is important. There are important benefits of knowing if you are HIV infected. You can get the latest medical treatment as soon as possible, and take extra care not to infect anyone.

If you are HIV positive you can:

  • Get early treatment to stay healthy
  • Get treatment to reduce the chances of your baby getting HIV if you are pregnant
  • Take precautions to not give HIV to others

If you are HIV negative you can:

  • Experience less stress and anxiety because you will know your status
  • Learn more about how to reduce your risk of becoming infected

Wouldn't HIV just show up as a low antibody count?

No. Testing for HIV infection is not done in regular blood work. Special tests are conducted specifically for HIV.

What will the HIV antibody test be able to tell me?

When you are infected by a virus or germ your blood makes proteins, called antibodies, to help fight off disease. Different antibodies are made to protect you from different diseases. If your body has been infected with HIV, HIV antibodies are made. The HIV antibody test looks for these antibodies. If they show up on the first test, your blood sample will be re-checked to confirm the results.

If I get tested, will I know right away if I am negative?

Not Necessarily. It is common that you could be HIV infected and not have it show up on a test. Your body could take 6 months to make enough HIV antibodies to show up on a test. The scary part is that people in this “window period” can infect others while showing no sign of infection on a test. Get tested now if you know you have been at risk. However, your doctor will likely test you again in 6 months if you have recently been at risk of HIV infection.

I have symptoms of HIV, but my test came back negative?

HIV can up to six months to show up as a positive result, but modern testing techniques have evolved significantly.  If you are experiencing low-grade fever, muscle pain or developed sores in your mouth even though you had a negative HIV result, you should return to your doctor. Having unprotected sex puts you at risk for any number of sexually transmitted diseases as well as HIV and Hepatitis C.  You should return to your doctor and tell him/her your symptoms and ask to be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases. You could ask for a follow-up HIV test just as a precaution.

Can I just get tested regularly and forget all this safer sex stuff?

Some people think that getting tested regularly protects them. As a way to prevent HIV, repeated testing is stupid. Once you have a positive test, there will be nothing you can do to change it. You will have HIV for the rest of your life. These are tough words, but when HIV progresses to AIDS, the person usually dies within a couple of years without anti-retroviral treatment.

If you have intercourse without condoms or share needles and you have had a negative HIV antibody blood test, you have been lucky. Unless you change your risk behaviours, you are playing Russian roulette.

Where can I get tested for HIV?

Testing is available through doctors’ offices and STI clinics and at some Family Planning clinics.

Don’t assume you are being tested for HIV when you have other tests or physical examinations. You need to ask for an HIV antibody blood test. You shouldn’t be tested unless you have given your consent.

How Much Does It Cost To Have A Test?

If you are tested because of health concerns, you will not be charged. If you are being tested in order to apply for life insurance, a foreign work visa, or some other non-medical reason you may be charged a fee. Costs vary, but are generally under $40.

Who Sees My Test Results?

For peace of mind, ask your doctor how your results will be handled by laboratory, office or hospital staff. Ask what will be done to keep your testing and results confidential.

Results are reported to the doctor who ordered the test. The doctor will discuss the results with you, only.

Can I get tested anonymously?

There are two sites for anonymous HIV testing in Calgary: Safeworks and the STD Clinic. No appointment is needed at Safeworks but it might be nice to have one at STD Clinic.

The STD Clinic number is: (403) 944-7575. 
Safeworks number is (403) 410-1180 Mon-Friday 1-5pm.

What is the longest amount of time a person can have HIV before it shows up on a test?

If your body has been infected with HIV, HIV antibodies are made. The HIV antibody test looks for these antibodies. If they show up on the first test, your blood sample will be re-checked to confirm the results. It is common that you could be HIV infected and not have it show up on a test. Your body could take 6 months to make enough HIV antibodies to show up on a test.

Can I get tested anonymously?

There are two sites for anonymous HIV testing in Calgary: Safeworks and the STD Clinic. No appointment is needed at Safeworks but it might be nice to have one at STD Clinic.

The STD Clinic number is: (403) 944-7575. 
Safeworks number is (403) 410-1180 Mon-Friday 1-5pm.

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