The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its fact sheet on HIV/AIDS.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens people’s defence systems against infections and some types of cancer.
As the virus destroys and impairs the function of immune cells, infected individuals gradually become immunodeficient.
Immune function is typically measured by CD4 cell count.
Immunodeficiency results in increased susceptibility to a wide range of infections and diseases that people with healthy immune systems can fight off.
The most advanced stage of HIV infection is Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which can take from 2 to 15 years to develop depending on the individual.
HIV continues to be a major global public health issue, having claimed more than 35 million lives so far.
In 2015, 1.1 (940 000–1.3 million) million people died from HIV-related causes globally.
There were approximately 36.7 (34.0–39.8) million people living with HIV at the end of 2015 with 2.1 (1.8–2.4) million people becoming newly infected with HIV in 2015 globally.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected region, with 25.6 (23.1–28.5) million people living with HIV in 2015. Also sub-Saharan Africa accounts for two-thirds of the global total of new HIV infections.
Symptoms and Signs
The symptoms of HIV vary depending on the stage of infection.
Though people living with HIV tend to be most infectious in the first few months, many are unaware of their status until later stages.
Other signs and symptoms include:
- swollen lymph nodes,
- weight loss,
- unexplained persistent fever,
- persistent diarrhoea and
- persistent cough.
Without treatment, they could also develop severe illnesses such as tuberculosis, cryptococcal meningitis, and cancers such as lymphomas and Kaposi’s sarcoma, among others.
HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from infected individuals, such as
- breast milk,
- semen and
- vaginal secretions.
Individuals cannot become infected through ordinary day-to-day contact such as
- shaking hands,
- sharing personal objects, food or water.
Behaviours and conditions that put individuals at greater risk of contracting HIV include:
- having unprotected anal or vaginal sex;
- having another sexually transmitted infection such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and bacterial vaginosis;
- sharing contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs;
- receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions, medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing; and
- experiencing accidental needle stick injuries, including among health workers.
HIV infection is often diagnosed through rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), which detect the presence or absence of HIV antibodies. Most often these tests provide same day test results; essential for same day diagnosis and early treatment and care.
It is estimated that currently only 54% of people with HIV know their status.
There is no cure for HIV infection. However, effective antiretroviral (ARV) drugs can control the virus and help prevent transmission so that people with HIV, and those at substantial risk, can enjoy healthy and productive lives.
By end-2015, 17.0 million people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) globally.
Expanding ART to all people living with HIV and expanding prevention choices can help avert 21 million AIDS-related deaths and 28 million new infections by 2030.
HIV can be suppressed by combination ART consisting of 3 or more ARV drugs.
ART does not cure HIV infection but controls viral replication within a person’s body and allows an individual’s immune system to strengthen and regain the capacity to fight off infections.
Key approaches to prevent HIV include:
1. Male and female condom use
Evidence shows that male latex condoms have an 85% or greater protective effect against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
2. Testing and counselling for HIV and STIs
Testing for HIV and other STIs is strongly advised for all people exposed to any of the risk factors.
WHO also recommends offering testing for partners or couples.
3. Voluntary medical male circumcision
Medical male circumcision, when safely provided by well-trained health professionals, reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.
4. Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) use for prevention
4.1 ART as prevention
A 2011 trial has confirmed if an HIV-positive person adheres to an effective ART regimen, the risk of transmitting the virus to their uninfected sexual partner can be reduced by 96%.
4.2 Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV-ve partner
Oral PrEP of HIV is the daily use of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs by HIV-uninfected people to block the acquisition of HIV.
WHO recommends PrEP as a prevention choice for people at substantial risk of HIV infection as part of combination prevention approaches.
4.3 Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV
Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is the use of ARV drugs within 72 hours of exposure to HIV in order to prevent infection.
PEP includes counselling, first aid care, HIV testing, and administering of a 28-day course of ARV drugs with follow-up care.
5. Harm reduction for injecting drug users
People who inject drugs can take precautions against becoming infected with HIV by using sterile injecting equipment, including needles and syringes, for each injection.
6. Elimination of Mother To Child Transmission of HIV (EMTCT)
The transmission of HIV from an HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, labour, delivery or breastfeeding is called vertical or mother-to-child transmission (MTCT).
In the absence of any interventions during these stages, rates of HIV transmission from mother-to-child can be between 15-45%.
MTCT can be nearly fully prevented if both the mother and the child are provided with ARV drugs throughout the stages when infection could occur.
WHO recommends options for prevention of MTCT (PMTCT), which includes
- providing ARVs to mothers and infants during pregnancy, labour and the post-natal period, and
- offering life-long treatment to HIV-positive pregnant women regardless of their CD4 count.
Link to the updated fact sheet:
Link to WHO’s consolidated guidelines on HIV testing services: