HIV Care and Prevention Program

The truth about HIV

The UW Health HIV Care & Prevention Program at University Hospital has been providing care for people with HIV/AIDS since 1985. Part of our work is dispelling myths about HIV and the patients we treat, along with providing accurate information about HIV. Read on to get the facts about HIV/AIDS.

There is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS, but you can live well with HIV

Although there is currently no cure for HIV, there is ongoing research worldwide that provides hope a cure will be found. Until there is a cure for HIV, people living with the virus can live well by getting into treatment and getting on antiretroviral therapy to control the virus. If HIV infection is diagnosed and treated early, the virus can be controlled and a person may never develop AIDS.

If you have HIV, you are not alone

There are many people living with HIV, even if you do not know who they are. About 36.7 million people are living with HIV around the world and an estimated 1.1 million people in the United States. In Wisconsin, there are close to 7,000 people living with HIV.

Receiving an HIV diagnosis can seem overwhelming. People recently diagnosed with HIV usually experience many different emotions, all of which are very common reactions to this news. If you have just been diagnosed with HIV, it is important for you to give yourself time to deal with the diagnosis. You will probably need someone to talk to about your diagnosis. When you are ready, think about reaching out to trusted friends or family members, to create a support system for yourself.

The staff at the UW HIV Care & Prevention Program, including medical case managers, nurses, and medical providers are also here to support you. Staff can answer questions you may have about your diagnosis and help connect you with others who may be going through something similar. They can also help you learn how to live well with HIV.

If someone has just told you about their HIV diagnosis, it means they trust you enough to share very personal information. You can honor this trust by keeping the person’s HIV status confidential, encouraging them to get in and stay in treatment, and offering to listen to the person in a non-judgmental way. It is also important to educate yourself about HIV and get support for yourself as well.

The facts about HIV transmission

HIV is an equal opportunity virus. This means that anyone can acquire (get) HIV regardless of their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender or age. Anyone who has HIV-infected body fluids enter their body is at risk of acquiring HIV. You are not protected from HIV just because you are a certain race or a member of a certain community, are married, make a certain amount of money, or live in a certain area. What does protect you from HIV is preventing HIV-infected body fluids from entering your body.

HIV is found in semen (cum) and pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), vaginal fluid, breast milk, blood (including menstrual blood) and rectal secretions. HIV can be transmitted (passed on) through unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, or rarely oral sex), sharing injection drug equipment (needles), or from mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. HIV can also be transmitted through blood transfusions and medical procedures; although in the U.S. there are procedures in place to prevent this from happening. Most people get HIV from having unprotected sex (vaginal or anal sex) with, or from sharing needles or other drug injection equipment with, someone who has HIV.

HIV does not live for long outside of the human body. That means that HIV cannot be transmitted by breathing the same air as someone with HIV, contact with toilet seats, eating utensils, or using swimming pools, baths or showers. You cannot get HIV from a mosquito bite.

It is true that some communities are more affected by HIV than others. Some people wonder why this is the case, and it is a very complex question that has more than just one answer. However, reading more about particular risk factors that put certain groups of people at higher risk for HIV might provide some answers. Another concept called Social Determinants of Health might also help to explain the disproportionate affect HIV has on some communities compared to others.

HIV is not the same thing as AIDS

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People can become infected with HIV, but not AIDS, as AIDS cannot be caught or transmitted. With ongoing antiretroviral therapy, a person living with HIV can keep the virus under control without ever progressing to an AIDS diagnosis. AIDS is syndrome that is diagnosed when a person's immune system has been badly damaged by HIV and they are susceptible to (at risk for) getting certain illnesses called opportunistic infections. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection and is also called Stage 3 HIV.

A person living with HIV who has received an AIDS/Stage 3 HIV diagnosis can get better with the help of treatment and medication. Although a person's health can improve after an AIDS/Stage 3 HIV diagnosis, this diagnosis will remain a part of their medical record. It is important for medical providers treating a person to be aware of this diagnosis, so that together they can make the best plan for the person's medical care.

It is impossible to know whether someone has HIV or AIDS by looking at them

Many people living with HIV do not show any signs or symptoms. In the U.S., estimates are that 1 in 7 people living with HIV are unaware of their HIV status. In Wisconsin, the estimates are even higher, at 1 in 6 people living with HIV being unaware of their HIV status. The only way to be sure if someone has HIV or not is to get an HIV test.

The best way to protect yourself is to know your HIV status

If you have ever been in a situation where HIV transmission was possible, get an HIV test to protect yourself and others. Remember that any situation where HIV could have been transmitted, like during sex or sharing needles for drug injection, means that other infections may have been transmitted as well. Some examples of these infections may include chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis, herpes and syphilis.

A person's HIV status is protected health information

An HIV diagnosis, as well as the other information contained in a person's electronic medical record, is considered protected health information (PHI). This information is protected by federal regulations called HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). HIPAA protects a person's medical records and other personal health information, like HIV status.

A patient's HIV status and other health information may be shared with other professionals who are treating the person. However, this does not mean that all providers or UW Health employees can access a patient's medical records; HIPAA laws strictly prohibit this. It also means that UW Health HIV Care & Prevention Program program staff cannot disclose a patient's HIV status to other people, like friends, family, or an employer, unless we first receive written authorization from the patient.

The UW Health HIV Care & Prevention Program takes privacy very seriously and makes sure that strict patient confidentiality is observed whenever we communicate with patients. Our staff receives ongoing training to ensure they are complying with HIPAA regulations and privacy procedures. UW Health HIV Care & Prevention Program staff may occasionally see patients in public. To further protect patients' privacy, UW Health HIV Care & Prevention Program staff will not acknowledge patients they see in a public place unless the patient first approaches the staff member.

People living with HIV can (and do) live long and healthy lives

HIV is not a death sentence. There are medications that can control HIV (antiretroviral therapy) and allow people to live well with the infection. A person diagnosed with HIV today at 20, who is on antiretroviral therapy, can expect to live a near normal life expectancy. Controlling HIV slows down the damage it causes in the body. When a person with HIV does not take medications, or takes them inconsistently, this allows the virus to overwhelm the immune system and it becomes more difficult to get healthy and stay healthy.

Women living with HIV can give birth to healthy HIV negative (HIV-) babies

Medications for HIV+ women used during pregnancy and delivery can prevent vertical (mother-to-child) transmission of HIV. With correct treatment and medications, the risk of a pregnant mother transmitting HIV to the baby can be less than 1%.

Getting tested early in pregnancy, and getting into treatment if an HIV diagnosis is received, provide women the best chance of having an HIV- baby. After an HIV+ woman has a baby, it's recommended that she avoiding breastfeeding, as breast milk is one of the fluids that contains HIV.

A woman living with HIV will want to talk with her healthcare provider before planning a pregnancy. The provider can help with decisions about how to conceive (get pregnant) safely and help a woman prepare for a healthy and safe pregnancy.

Men living with HIV can have healthy HIV negative (HIV-) babies

A man living with HIV cannot transmit HIV directly to a baby. A baby can only be born with HIV if its mother is HIV+. Therefore, it is especially important to avoid transmitting HIV to a woman during conception (the process of becoming pregnant) and throughout a pregnancy.

A man or woman living with HIV may choose to have a child in different types of parenting relationships. Some of these relationships include single parenting, co-parenting with a same-sex partner or spouse, co-parenting with another single parent, and many others. There are multiple safer conception options available depending on the makeup of the parenting relationship and the HIV status of the biological parents.

Some safer conception strategies include TasP (Treatment as Prevention), timed intercourse, PrEP (for an HIV- female partner) or using assisted reproductive techniques like sperm washing and IVF (in-vitro fertilization). These safer conception strategies vary in terms of cost and effectiveness.

People are unique and can have different needs and desires related to having a biological child. Because of this, and because of the fact that there are many different factors to consider, it is often wise to talk with a healthcare provider before planning a pregnancy. Your provider can help with decisions about how to conceive safely.

To read more about the facts on HIV, we recommend the following sites:

Prevention of HIV

Living Well with HIV

Planning for a Baby for People Living with HIV

Providing Support for People Living with HIV

Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) and HIV

Related resources

Related pages