FAQ’s

Public Health Fact Sheet – HIV/AIDS

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health works to maintain, protect and improve the health of the people of the Commonwealth. Following are some of the questions and concerns about HIV/AIDS disease which have been raised by residents of this Commonwealth.

WHAT IS HIV/AIDS?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that is widely believed to cause AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). HIV enters the body usually as a result of unprotected sexual intercourse or other blood to blood contact with someone who already has the virus. HIV attacks and weakens the immune system by destroying helper T-cells, an essential part of the immune system. HIV is fragile and cannot survive long outside of the body.

Over time, HIV disease damages the body’s immune system, allowing people to get life threatening infections. When the body’s immune system is severely damaged by HIV, an AIDS diagnosis is likely to be made. A diagnosis of AIDS means that a person with HIV has an extremely low level of helper T cells, or has certain illnesses. Only a health care provider can make a diagnosis of AIDS.

HOW IS HIV TRANSMITTED?
HIV can be transmitted by the exchange of infected blood, semen or vaginal fluids from one person to another. Sexual transmission of HIV occurs most frequently during anal or vaginal intercourse without the use of a latex condom. HIV can be transmitted by sharing contaminated needles. HIV can be transmitted during oral sex. Infected women can transmit the virus to their babies during pregnancy or birth and in some cases, through breast milk.

HIV/AIDS IS A PREVENTABLE DISEASE
The following are recommended to prevent transmission of the virus:

The only sure way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is through abstinence.
Think and talk about HIV prevention before having sex.
When engaging in anal, vaginal or oral sex, use a latex condom each time (do not re-use condoms).
During sexual activity, avoid getting someone else’s blood, semen, or vaginal secretions into your body.
Alcohol and other drugs impair judgment, which may lead to unsafe practices. To learn more about condom use and other protective measures, please contact the AIDS Hotline.
If injecting drugs, do not share the needles (or cotton, syringe and cooker). Use new needles or needles cleaned with full strength bleach and rinsed with water each time.
Women considering pregnancy should seek counseling to determine their risk.

HIV/AIDS CAN BE A MANAGEABLE DISEASE
Although presently there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, we now know that people can live for many years with HIV. As treatments develop, it becomes increasingly possible to treat HIV infection as a chronic but controlled condition. It is important to seek early treatment and counseling to help improve and prolong the quality of life. Currently there is a wide range of treatments available.

WHAT IS THE HIV ANTIBODY TEST?
The HIV Antibody test is not a test for AIDS, but rather for the antibody that forms in response to the presence of HIV in the blood. The antibody can be detected in most people within six weeks to six months from the time of infection.

WHAT DOES A NEGATIVE TEST MEAN?
A negative antibody test means that at the time of the test there was no presence of HIV antibodies found in your system. It is important to continue safer sex and needle practices. It does not mean that you are immune to future infection with HIV.

WHAT DOES A POSITIVE TEST MEAN?
A positive HIV antibody test means that you are infected with HIV. Your body is producing the antibodies (the immune system’s response to infection) to HIV. You do not necessarily have AIDS. A positive HIV antibody blood test result means you can infect other people with the virus. If you would like to know more about HIV/AIDS or would like more information about HIV antibody testing and/or counseling, contact:

Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology (617) 983-6800
Massachusetts Department of Public Health, HIV/AIDS Bureau (617) 624-5300
Toll Free Statewide AIDS Hotline 1-800-235-2331
Toll Free Spanish Hotline 1-800-637-3776
AIDS Action Committee – Hotline (617) 536-7733 – Services (617) 437-6200
HIV/AIDS Surveillance Program