More than 1 million people in the United States live with HIV. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. HIV attacks specific cells in the body’s immune system. The immune system helps to fight off infections. Even with treatment, it is not possible for HIV to be eliminated completely from the body. So once you get HIV, you have it for life.
Over time, HIV can destroy so many cells in the immune system that the body can’t fight off infections and disease anymore. When this happens, HIV can lead to AIDS.
How is HIV spread?
You get HIV by coming in direct contact with body fluids from a person who is infected with HIV. This includes blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. So HIV can be spread:
- By having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV. Both men and women can spread HIV. Most new HIV infections in women come from having sex with a man who is infected. Women are more likely than men to get infected through sex.
- Through contact with an HIV-infected person’s blood. This can happen when sharing needles, accidentally getting stuck by a needle with a person’s blood on it, or contact with other body fluids containing blood.
- From mother to baby. This is called perinatal transmission. Babies can get HIV from their mothers:
- Before birth, when the virus crosses the placenta and infects the baby.
- During labor and delivery from contact with their mother’s blood and vaginal fluids.
- Through breastfeeding.
Testing for HIV
Approximately 18% of all people with HIV do not know their HIV status. This means that many women who are infected with HIV may not know they have it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends HIV testing for all pregnant women unless they say that they do NOT want to be tested. HIV testing is typically done during the first prenatal care appointment. The CDC also recommends getting tested again, later in pregnancy, if you’re at risk for getting HIV.
Preventing transmission of HIV during pregnancy
There are ways to reduce the chances of passing HIV to your baby. If HIV is detected as early as possible during pregnancy or before pregnancy you can:
- Get treatment with medicines that fight HIV. If you’re pregnant and have HIV, you can get medicine to reduce the risk of passing HIV to your baby and to protect your own health. HIV medicines are recommended for everyone infected with HIV and most are safe to use during pregnancy.
- Have a scheduled cesarean delivery (sometimes called a c-section).
- Make sure your baby receives HIV medicines for 4 to 6 weeks after birth. This reduces the risk of infection from any HIV that may have entered your baby’s body during birth.
- Don’t breastfeed.
If you’re pregnant, get tested for HIV. Proper treatment can significantly reduce your chances of passing HIV to your baby.