HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)
There are two main types and several sub-types of HIV. HIV can attack the immune system, leaving the infected person progressively more prone to infections.  The cumulative infections can ultimately be fatal.  There is no current vaccine or cure for the disease however treatment is available that can slow and even stop the virus from replicating.  Treatment regimes are complex and require high levels of compliance.  The virus can become resistant to treatments and continue to replicate.

Causes and harm reduction
HIV can be transmitted through the sharing of all injecting paraphernalia, through unprotected sex and can be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth.

Any points where injecting equipment and resources are shared should be treated as risk factors for the transmission of HIV.  The virus can remain viable for as long as three weeks outside the body.

When risky behaviour around sharing of equipment and paraphernalia is identified, practitioners should work with the young person to identify the nature of the risk and strategies to avoid the risk.

There are generally no initial signs and symptoms indicating that a person has been infected with the HIV virus.  The person may remain healthy and unaware of their viral state for several years.

Testing blood for the presence of antibodies can detect the presence of the virus.  This only becomes possible at least three months (the three month window) after the point of infection.

People may start to develop conditions that are the result of HIV infection however these can easily be confused with signs of other ill-health or even withdrawal from drugs.  General symptomatic signs of HIV infection may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Severe night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Malaise
  • Diarrhoea
  • Enlarged lymph glands
  • Oral thrush
  • Anal herpes

What to do
The young person may indicate that they think they may have been exposed to the virus and may wish to explore HIV counselling and testing.  Practitioners should explain to young people that an accurate result will not be provided until the three month window period has passed. Some nursing staff, other specialist allied health practitioners, and General Practitioners can provide young people with pre and post test counselling, which requires special training.  In the interim, young people should be strongly encouraged to practice safe injecting techniques regardless of their viral status, known or unknown.  Young people will also need emotional support to navigate the waiting process.

Any young person presenting with symptoms of HIV related illnesses should be referred to medical services where they will be able to explore options around testing and treatment.