The right to know

How does HIV enter the body?

Image de l'UNICEF
© HQ00-0305/Pirozzi
In Egypt, a boy participates in an information session on HIV/AIDS awareness at a UNICEF-assisted centre in Cairo.

HIV is spread mainly through sexual contact

HIV is spread mainly through sexual contact. There are different forms of sexual contact: vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse and oral sex. All have a high risk of infection if done with an HIV-positive person.

  • During vaginal sex, the virus can be passed through tiny cuts or sores in a woman's vagina or on a man's penis.
  • There is a big risk of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS when having anal sex, because the skin of the anus is very soft and there are no body fluids to ease (lubricate) penetration. This means anal intercourse is likely to tear the anus which would increase the chances of HIV transmission.
  • Having oral sex can also put a person at risk of HIV infection if they have small cuts or sores in their mouth, and they come into contact with any infected body fluid (such as semen or vaginal fluids). The virus can pass through the cuts or sores and into the person's blood stream, infecting them. While the risk of transmission of HIV infection through oral sex is much smaller than through vaginal or anal sex, even a lower risk activity can become an important way for people to get infected.

HIV and injecting drug users

HIV can be transmitted between injecting drug users if the drug equipment (needles, syringes or rinsing water) is contaminated by HIV-infected fluids (usually blood) and is then reused by another person without first sterilizing it.

If you or someone you know is injecting drugs, the following steps can reduce, but not completely remove, the risk of transmitting HIV:

Mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS

Nine out of every 10 children under the age of 15 become infected with HIV every year because their mothers are HIV-positive - this is known as 'mother to child transmission' of HIV. In 2001 alone, 710,000 children under 15 contracted HIV while in their mother's womb, during childbirth or through breastfeeding.

Will all HIV positive mothers transmit the virus to their babies? No, but without any  interventions such as anti-retroviral drugs, the risk of a baby acquiring the virus from an infected mother is 15 to 25 per cent in industrialized countries and 25 to 35 per cent (or higher) in developing countries.

Pregnant women need to know that the risk of passing HIV to their infant can be greatly reduced by:

HIV and tattoos and piercing

Many people find that tattoos and piercing help them express themselves. Images of beauty and power, abstract designs, names and places - you dream it, you can get it. But tattoos and piercing may put you at risk of HIV infection, which can be transmitted through needles and blood.

So know the rules for safe tattoos and piercing:

  • Make sure the piercer/tattoo artist explains all safety measures before tattooing or piercing starts.
  • Make sure the piercer/tattoo artist is wearing gloves.
  • Make sure the needle is sterilized and discarded after use.
  • All inks should be in disposable caps and discarded after use -- sharing needles or ink can transfer HIV.