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Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV is a serious and unpleasant disease. It is transmitted through bodily fluids (such as semen) during unprotected sex with an infected person or by using infected objects such as needles, razors, toothbrushes or hypodermic syringes. It is the cause of much pain, suffering and death worldwide and must be taken seriously.

HIV is a virus that attacks the body's natural immune system and disables it so that the body has no defence against what might otherwise be curable diseases, infections and other viruses. Nowadays, there exists a tough treatment for sufferers of HIV. The virus can not be killed but there are very strong drugs which help contain the virus from developing into AIDS as quickly as would otherwise be the case. However, there are side-effects with these drugs. Therefore, and only for those whose health services are rich enough to afford the drugs, HIV now is more of a life limiting disease than a life threatening one.

AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is the final stage of the disease, known also as 'full-blown AIDS', and this is what breaks your body down completely and results in death. If you can prevent your body from becoming this weak, using the drugs and living sensibly, then you reduce the chances of the virus reaching this fatal stage. If the virus reaches this stage, the body becomes so weak that a major infection will usually result in death within one or two years.

HIV/AIDS is not, despite the old reputation, associated only with the homosexual community. When it first came about in the 1980s a huge number of homosexual men died. This was for two reasons. It was partly because during anal sex, membranes can be more easily broken, the rectum is more liable to absorb infection, and so the disease has the highest chance of being transmitted. Far more than this, it was because, on average , the men would have had 'unprotected' sex with quite a lot of sexual partners, thus increasing the chances of being exposed to the virus - though it is important to remember that you can catch HIV from having sex with one person once .

That was then. Now we see that HIV does not discriminate between different sexualities and that anyone, of whatever sexuality, can become infected. Indeed, it is now thought of as the 'African disease' at least as much as it is associated with being gay. Approximately two thirds of those living with HIV/AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 8 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 49 have HIV/AIDS. The other community ravaged by AIDS is that of intravenous drug users, in which it is transmitted by sharing needles.

Using a condom if one person has HIV only reduces the risk of infection - it does not eliminate it. The condom could break for example. (Make sure you use extra lubrication, such as KY jelly, available from chemists, to help prevent this happening.) Masturbation, kissing, hugging and touching are usually okay as long as there are no breaks or cuts in the skin or present in the mouth. Oral sex is a risk as it is hard to tell if there is an ulcer there or whether gums have been bleeding. In this case it is advisable to use a condom.

Unprotected sex involves risks with all STIs. To be safe without condoms, you would have to be completely aware of your own and your partner's health status and sexual history. Whoever your partner has slept with in the past could potentially affect you. You should think about whether you can be 'completely' aware - and remember that a lot of people can and do lie. If you are ready for a completely committed relationship, in which neither of you will ever sleep with anyone else, and you are ready to trust your partner completely, then you should go together to a sexual health clinic to get tested for STIs, including HIV, then have protected sex for another six months, get tested again - and only then are you likely to be safe.

People who contract HIV and AIDS should not be treated any differently by society. They can continue to live fulfilling lives as long as they take the necessary precautions and are honest with their sexual partners, or whoever it may concern directly. It is believed by some that will power and living healthy lives helps HIV infected people. Some people can live for years without any treatment before it develops into AIDS. On the other hand, a new, drug-resistant form of HIV has been identified, which has led to full blown AIDS and death within six months.

As of the end of 2003, an estimated 40 million people were living with HIV/AIDS. In 2003 alone, HIV/AIDS-associated illnesses caused the deaths of approximately 2.9 million people, including an estimated 490,000 children younger than 15 years.

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