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What is HIV?

What is HIV? 

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks and weakens the body’s immune system. HIV is transmitted through the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal fluid, and breast milk of a person with HIV who has a detectable viral load. This commonly happens through condomless sex, sharing injecting or tattooing equipment, and during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS if left untreated.

What is AIDS? 

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a result of a person’s immune system being severely damaged by HIV if left untreated for some time. AIDS is not a single disease. It is a diagnosis that can result from a range of conditions that can occur when a person’s immune system has been damaged by untreated HIV. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing, and it is important to remember that a person living with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. As a result of effective treatment, very few people in the ACT are currently living with AIDS. 

How is HIV transmitted? 

HIV can be transmitted through the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal fluid, and breast milk of a person living with HIV who has a detectable viral load. The main ways this can occur are through: 

  • Sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal) without the use of an HIV prevention strategy (e.g., condoms, PrEP, PEP or U=U) 
  • Sharing injecting or tattooing equipment 
  • Pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding (birthing parent – child) 

HIV cannot live outside of the body for very long, and it is not air-borne like the flu or COVID-19. HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils, plates or cups.  

How is HIV detected? 

HIV is detected through an HIV antibody test. HIV tests can be conducted by: 

This test detects the antibodies that are produced by the body when an HIV infection occurs. It can take up to 12 weeks (3 months) for these antibodies to appear. This is called a ‘window period’, which means that an HIV antibody test could be negative even if a person is HIV-positive. Because of this window period, it is best practice to get an HIV test every 3 months if you are at risk of HIV, or 3 months after a potential exposure to HIV.  

 More information


What is viral load? 

Viral load refers to the amount of HIV virus that is in an HIV-positive person’s body. A doctor takes a sample of blood and sends it to a laboratory where a viral load test is performed to find a person's viral load. In the results, the viral load is shown as a number. The figure is the number of viral copies per millilitre of blood (copies/ml). This can range from less than 20 copies per millilitre to more than one million copies per millilitre. 

What is an undetectable viral load? 

An undetectable viral load refers to a person’s viral load being reduced to a point where there is not enough HIV in their blood for a test to measure. Having an undetectable viral load does not mean someone is cured of HIV, only that there is a small amount of viral load in their body.  

People living with HIV on sustained effective treatment are often able to keep their viral load at low or undetectable levels. When a person is living with an Undetectable Viral Load (UVL) they will experience greatly improved health outcomes and cannot transmit HIV to a partner who is HIV-negative. This is referred to as ‘Undetectable Equals Untransmissible’ or ‘U=U’. Find more information about U=U here. 

HIV in Australia 

Find more information about HIV in Australia at AFAO and The Kirby Institute 

HIV Around the World 

Find more information about HIV around the world at UNAIDS