It's Your Health
This article was produced in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first detected in Canada more than 25 years ago. Since then, thousands of Canadians continue to become infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) every year.
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, resulting in a chronic, progressive illness that leaves people vulnerable to infections. When the body can no longer fight infection, the disease has progressed to become AIDS.
AIDS is a deadly disease and continues to be a global health issue. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, in 2008, there were an estimated 2 million deaths worldwide due to AIDS. There is no cure for AIDS and currently no vaccine to prevent the HIV infection.
Over a period of years, HIV can weaken the body's immune system to the point where it no longer can fight usually harmless bacterial and viral infections, parasites, fungi, and cancers. These diseases are called "opportunistic infections", and their appearance for a person living with HIV may lead to the onset of AIDS, which is the last stage of the HIV infection. Advanced opportunistic infections can lead to death.
HIV is not transmitted through air, food, or water or through everyday social contact, such as shaking hands, sneezing, touching, and swimming. For a person to become infected with HIV, the virus must enter the bloodstream. As such, there are a limited number of ways that a person can transmit or become infected by HIV.
The following activities can place a person at high-risk for HIV infection:
HIV cannot be transmitted in the following ways:
The following activities pose a low risk for contracting the HIV infection, but they still carry a risk. They pose a high risk when one of the partners has a pre-existing infection that resulted from a previous sexual experience or contact with infected blood.
Even without treatment, it can take many years for a person infected with HIV to develop noticeable symptoms. That is why people can be unaware that they are infected with HIV. The Agency estimates that, at the end of 2008, 26% of the people in Canada who were living with HIV did not know they were infected. If people have HIV and do not know it, they may unknowingly infect others by not taking proper precautions during sex, or while injecting drugs or steroids. The only way to confirm if you are infected is through a blood test.
HIV is not an easy virus to transmit. It can only be passed from body to body through blood, semen, pre-ejaculate (pre-semen), vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
There are several steps a person can take to reduce the risk of HIV infection.
1. If you decide to have sex, discuss HIV and other sexually transmitted infections with your sexual partner, and only have sex with a partner who agrees to have safe sex.
To practise safer sex:
2. If you are injecting drugs or steroids, practise safer injection:
3. If you are pregnant and concerned about HIV, talk to your doctor about being tested. Early treatment with medication can prevent the transmission of HIV from a mother to her baby.
4. If you are getting a tattoo, body piercing, electrolysis, or acupuncture, ensure these activities are only carried out by professionals who follow universal infection-control precautions similar to those used in hospitals (see Need More Info below for information on universal infection-control precautions). The law requires that all needles used in these procedures are used only once and are disposed of after use.
5. If you are exposed to bodily fluids in an occupational setting, follow applicable health and safety guidelines and universal infection-control precautions (see Need More Info below for information on universal infection-control precautions). If accidental exposure to these fluids occurs through a needle-stick or a sharp-object injury or through a skin puncture, follow organizational guidelines or, in the absence of guidelines, let the wound bleed freely and go to a hospital emergency room as soon as possible.
Remember, if you have engaged in risky behaviour, get an HIV test.
Receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV infection changes your life forever. If you have recently been diagnosed with HIV, the the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange website (listed in the Need More Info section below) this site offers helpful advice, information, and recommendations for people living with HIV/AIDS.
There is no cure for the HIV infection. Treatments, known as antiretrovirals, only suppress the virus replication in the body and disrupt the action of the virus. Advances in treatment have helped prolong the lives and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS. However, antiretrovirals are not a cure. If treatment is discontinued, the virus becomes active again. Therefore, a person on antiretrovirals must take them for life.
Like all medications, HIV drugs can cause side effects. In most cases, the side effects are mild, like a headache or an upset stomach. In some cases, more serious side effects can happen, such as liver damage, heart disease or a severe skin rash. There may also be long-term side effects we don't know about yet. Many of the HIV drugs have not been on the market long enough for all the possible long-term effects to have been discovered. Some drug treatments for HIV also fail because some new strains of the virus have developed drug resistance.
The bottom line is that HIV/AIDS is still a deadly disease. Prevention is the only answer.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates that approximately 65,000 people were living with HIV infection in Canada at the end of 2008--a 14% increase from 2005. PHAC also estimates that in Canada, in 2008, there were from2,300 to 4,300 new HIV infections.
According to Summary: Estimates of HIV Prevalence and Incidence in Canada, 2008, men who have sex with men continue to be the group most affected by HIV/AIDS in Canada. Estimates were classified according to the following exposure categories for new infections:
At the end of 2008, women living with HIV accounted for approximately 22% of the national total. Aboriginal peoples account for a disproportionately high percentage of the individuals living with HIV infection in Canada. Although Aboriginal peoples represented only 3.8% of the Canadian population in the 2006 census, they accounted for approximately 7.4% of individuals living with HIV and for 12.5% of those who were newly infected.
Similarly, people from countries where HIV is endemic (mainly countries of sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean) also represent a disproportionate percentage of the total number of HIV infections in Canada. In 2008, individuals who originated from a country where HIV is endemic accounted for 16% of estimated new infections in Canada, an infection rate of almost 8.5 times higher than among other Canadians.
The Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada is a key element of the Government of Canada's long-term, comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS. The Federal Initiative provides funding for prevention and support programs reaching key populations, as well as research, surveillance, public awareness, and evaluation. Working in partnership with Health Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Correctional Service of Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada serves as the focal point for federal expertise in HIV/AIDS.
The goals of the Federal Initiative are as follows:
Canada also recognizes the importance of investing in the development of new HIV-prevention technologies. In February 2007, Prime Minister Harper announced a commitment to the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI), an effort funded by the Government of Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The CHVI will contribute to international efforts to develop a safe, effective, affordable, and globally accessible HIV vaccine.
For more information on preventing HIV or taking an HIV test, you can contact:
For information on issues relating to the disclosure of HIV-positive status when engaging in risk activities, view:
For general information on HIV/AIDS, consult:
The following organizations are involved in the global response to HIV/AIDS:
You can also call toll-free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245*
Updated: November 2010
Original: December 2003
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2010