Houston Health Department

FAQ

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What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that weakens the immune system and causes HIV disease and AIDS.
H - Human, because this virus can only infect human beings
I - Immuno-deficiency, because the effect of the virus is to create a deficiency, a failure in the normal function of the immune system
V - Virus, because the organism is a virus, which means one of its characteristics is that it is incapable of reproducing by itself. It needs a living cell to reproduce.

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What is AIDS?
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is the life-threatening stage of HIV disease, also called Advanced HIV Disease. It is a medical diagnosis for someone whose immune system is so damaged that certain diseases (opportunistic infections) or cancers can develop. It is identified as such because:
A - Acquired; it is an acquired condition or infection, not something transmitted or inherited through the genes.
I - Immune; it affects the body's immune system, that part of the body which is responsible for protecting the body from germs such as bacteria, fungi and viruses.
D - Deficiency; it makes the immune system deficient (does not work properly).
S - Syndrome; someone with AIDS may experience a wide range of different diseases and opportunistic infections.

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What causes AIDS?
HIV is the virus that most researchers believe causes AIDS. However, some scientists remain unconvinced that HIV causes AIDS. These scientists believe that HIV can cause AIDS only in the presence of a cofactor, some other virus or condition which has not been found yet.

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Where did HIV come from?
The evidence is strong for a link between HIV and Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), which infects chimpanzees and many other species of primates. The virus was probably transmitted to humans while hunting and butchering infected chimpanzees or other primates. Evidence indicates the current epidemic probably started in the 1930s.
The earliest known case of HIV was from a blood sample collected in 1959 from a man in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We do know that the virus has existed in the United States since at least the mid-to-late 1970s.
From 1979-1981 doctors in Los Angeles and New York were reporting rare types of pneumonia, cancer, and other illnesses among a number of gay male patients. These were conditions not usually found in people with healthy immune systems.

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How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?
If left untreated, HIV gradually weakens the immune system and a person may develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. The time it takes to develop AIDS is different for everyone and depends on genetics, general health status, levels of stress, and other contributing factors. With the development of better drug treatments since 1996, many individuals living with HIV have not and will not develop AIDS.

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How can I tell if I'm infected with HIV?
HIV is diagnosed with an antibody test or other methods used by licensed medical professionals. The most common tests are antibody tests and can be administered at an HIV test site, or at a medical clinic. Many sites offer a rapid test which can give results within minutes. The only way you know if you are infected is by taking an HIV test or being diagnosed by a licensed medical professional.

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What are the symptoms of HIV?
The initial symptoms of HIV disease may be a flu-like illness lasting up to two weeks (fever, chills, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes). Some people do not experience any symptoms or have symptoms so mild that they may not notice them. Later (sometimes years later) people with HIV may experience night sweats, fever, fatigue, involuntary weight loss, diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes, oral candidiasis, and vaginal yeast infections.

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What is the connection between HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. You can contract HIV the same way you contract other STDs; by having unprotected sex. Also, the presence of other STDs, like syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia, make it more likely to become HIV infected. By lowering your immune system, HIV can also make it easier to contract other diseases.

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How is HIV transmitted?
The four common means of transmission are:
Unprotected sexual intercourse (anal, vaginal, oral).
Sharing of injection drug paraphernalia - including needles, syringes, cookers, and other Injection equipment.
From an infected woman to her fetus (vertical or perinatal transmission), or to her child through infected breast milk (neonatal transmission).
Through other direct exposure to infected blood or needle sticks (occupational transmission) or tattoos or piercing with non-sterile equipment.

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Can I get HIV from oral sex?
Yes, but oral sex carries a low risk of HIV transmission. However, other STD's are easily transmitted by oral sex, especially gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and herpes.

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Can I get HIV from having vaginal sex without a condom?
Yes. The HIV virus can penetrate the lining of the vagina, therefore cuts and sores in the vagina greatly increase the risk of infection. Some of these cuts and sores are so small a woman might not know they are there. In a heterosexual encounter, HIV passes more easily from male to female than vice versa. Therefore, the woman is at greater risk of infection.

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Can I get HIV from anal sex without a condom?
Yes. Anal intercourse without a condom with an infected person (man or woman) is the riskiest activity for HIV transmission. The receptive partner is at risk because the anal area provides easy access to the bloodstream for HIV carried in semen. The insertive partner is also at risk because the membranes inside the urethra can provide an entry for HIV, possibly coming from the blood inside the anus of the receptive partner, into the bloodstream of the insertive partner.

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Can I get HIV from open mouth kissing?
Not likely. Open mouth kissing is not known to pose any risk for HIV infection. Saliva does not transmit HIV.

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Can I get HIV from tattoos or through body piercing?
Yes. Any instrument designed to penetrate the skin can transmit disease from person to person. Always ensure that the person doing the tattooing or piercing is using properly sterilized equipment.

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Can I get HIV from casual contact? What is casual contact?
No. HIV is not transmitted through casual, everyday contact. Casual contact includes, but is not limited to shaking hands, hugging, sharing a phone, trying on clothes, kissing someone on the mouth or cheek, sharing pens or pencils, sharing food, eating from the same plate, drinking from the same glass, and sharing toilet seats.

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Can I get HIV from mosquitoes and/or other insects?
No. Mosquitoes draw blood out of the human body and do not inject blood into the human body. HIV cannot live in the gut of or on any part of a mosquito. No other insect or bug has the ability to carry HIV from human to human.

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Can I get HIV from donating blood?
No. When blood is donated, sterilized needles are always used and are not reused. If you are concerned, ask the health worker if they are using new, sterilized needles and equipment to draw blood.

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Can I get HIV from blood transfusions?
Not likely. Early in the epidemic, there were cases of HIV contracted through transfusions. Arthur Ashe, the tennis player, was infected this way. Beginning in 1985, the blood supply was tested for HIV. Tests for HIV have come a long way since then so the chances of getting infected by transfusion are very, very small, something like 1 in 600,000. It is recommended that people who will need to get blood for medical procedures bank their own blood in advance to eliminate any risk from blood transfusions.

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Can a mother pass HIV to her baby?
It is possible for an HIV infected mother to pass the virus on to her baby during pregnancy, while giving birth, and through breast milk. If a woman living with HIV who is pregnant does not seek treatment, the chances are as high as 25% that her baby will be born with HIV.
If you are pregnant it is important that you get tested for HIV. If you are infected with HIV, there are treatments available that greatly reduce the chances that your baby will be born with HIV.

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Can I be tested for HIV without my consent?
No. HIV testing cannot be done without consent from the patient, except under very specific conditions. People applying for a new or renewal of a license as a professional boxer or martial artist must present evidence of HIV negative status within 30 days of application for the license. People who apply for immigrant visas to the U.S. are also required to document HIV negative status. Finally, the U.S. military, Peace Corps and other government agencies require that people wanting to join these agencies produce proof of HIV status before the applicant will be hired or enlisted.

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What are partner services?
Partner services are a broad array of services that should be offered to persons with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and their sexual or needle-sharing partners. By identifying infected persons, confidentially notifying their partners of their possible exposure, and providing infected persons and their partners a range of medical, prevention, and psychosocial services, partner services can improve the health not only of individuals, but of communities as well.

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Who is going to notify my sex partner(s) or anyone I think might be at risk of having the STD I was treated for?
There is a professional DIS that specializes in notifying people who have or might have STDs. This is an actual profession that has been around in the US for over 50 years. The worker is known as a Sexually Transmitted Disease Intervention Specialist or DIS for short. These are caring and dedicated professionals who are highly trained in the area of STDs and partner notification and they operate under strict standards of confidentiality. The DIS receives intense training on how to discreetly notify people of positive STD tests, and those who were exposed to STDs. The DIS takes his/her work seriously and will go to great extents to protect your confidentiality and privacy while doing the contact notifications. The DIS is specially trained to motivate people to get tested and to discuss medical management of contacts to STD with doctors, so the contacts get the recommended testing and treatment. The DIS is knowledgeable of all different lifestyles, and can do his/her job smoothly in any social, cultural environment. It is critical that you get to know your DIS during this process to make sure that it goes smoothly and is thorough and effective.

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Why can’t I just tell my own sex partner(s) to go get checked for whatever STD I had?
There are a few drawbacks to telling your partner this way. There is no guarantee that the partner(s) will take action. Often the STDs don’t cause symptoms which could trigger confusion and discredit your efforts. Telling your partner on your own does not make it anonymous. This may not be an issue for some, but for others it is a serious consideration. Partner violence is another possibility. People sometimes get angry when STDs enter their lives and reactions can get out of hand. So by working hand in hand with your DIS you have a much better chance to avoid these drawbacks. Again these are issues that your DIS is aware of and can provide you some tips on how to handle.

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How do I know which sex partner(s) to refer?
ALL sex partner(s) within a specified period need to be notified, examined and possibly treated to stop the spread. False assumptions are very dangerous and could result in the chain of infection starting all over again. Consult with your DIS about which of your contacts need to be referred.  Depending on which STD you have you may need to refer your partner(s) from within the last 30 days up to 1 year. You will be given some suggestions on this when you speak with your DIS. Don’t make assumptions about who gave you the STD or to whom you could have passed the STD.

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Will the DIS tell my sex partner(s) or others that I was the one who named them? No. The DIS is specially trained to deal with questions about who requested public DIS assistance in doing the notification. The worker is strictly prohibited from giving that information or any clues about who provided information. We think this is the most important rule in maintaining the success of the partner notification process. Your name will not be given to anyone. There is a chance that your contact will confront you about being the one who requested a DIS contact them. This is not unusual and you should be prepared to respond however you think is best for your situation. Being confronted is especially likely if you are their only sex partner. There are ways to deal with that confrontation. Consult with your DIS. She/He can coach you on some responses to possible confrontation that will meet your situation.

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What if my sex partner(s) don't live in Houston?
No problem. As long as your partner(s) are in the US we can arrange for a specially trained DIS where that person lives to do the notification. Our DIS can forward your request to the right area to get the notification done. Also, the person being notified will not be told that the information came from the Houston area. That policy is necessary to protect confidentiality. If your contacts don’t live in the US, we may be able to get international follow-up depending on where they live. Discuss this with your DIS for specifics.

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I don’t want to involve my steady partner in this because I will lose the relationship and all that goes with it.
This is a concern for many people. The fear of losing the relationship and support that goes with it is real. The fact is though, that your steady partner could very well be in the chain of infection related to your STD and must be notified. Continuing a sexual relationship without telling your steady partner will cause you to be re-infected or your partner will become seriously ill because the disease has remained in their body for a long period of time. Talk to your DIS on how to best do this notification to ease the impact.