By Dr Kelvin Adams. Updated 13th October 2014

HIV, What is it ? How is it transmitted?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that is a member of the Retrovirus family. It is therefore also sometimes referred to as Retrovirus. This is important nomenclature as treatment for HIV is often referred to as Anti-Retroviral Therapy (or ART).

HIV virus weakens the immune system by attacking certain immune cells called CD4 or T cells which are important in fighting infections. The CD4 count or T cell count is an important thing that is talked about in HIV positive individuals.

HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). AIDS is a syndrome or collection of a number of particular infections and illnesses that generally occur at a very low CD4 count, or after someone has had HIV for a long time. Someone who has HIV (a virus) may not necessarily have AIDS (an illness).

HIV is found in

  • blood
  • semen (cum and pre-cum)
  • vaginal fluid
  • anal fluid
  • breast milk.


HIV is transmitted by

  • unprotected (without a condom) vaginal or anal sex
  • sharing needles and injecting equipment (“gear”) during injecting drug usage.
  • needle-stick injuries in a health care setting
  • during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding in HIV positive mothers
  • rarely, by unprotected oral sex (ejaculation into the mouth and gum disease may increase the risk slightly)

In anal sex between men who have sex with men, both receptive (“bottoming”) and insertive (”topping”) sex involves risk, although the risk is lower for insertive anal sex.

HIV is not transmitted by saliva, tears, sweat, urine or faeces. It cannot be spread through hugging, kissing, skin contact, sharing household items (eg. cutlery), toilet seats or mosquitoes.


For more information:

The Victorian AIDS Council

Living Positive   (a community based organisation for people living with HIV in Victoria)

The National Association of People with HIV Australia

The Body –  (the largest source of HIV / AIDS information on the internet)

Positive Women   (for women living with HIV)

Straight Arrows   (for heterosexuals living with HIV)