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Risk Factors for HIV Transmission

While most people are rightly concerned about the risk of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) being transferred from person to person, there is one major consideration that should be remembered when assessing the risk of HIV transmission. The HIV virus cannot survive outside the body, which limits the opportunities for transmission. Also, HIV cannot be ‘caught’ through ordinary contact with infected people or from the air that you breathe.

The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal fluids. There has to be an exchange of bodily fluids for infection to occur. With that in mind, these are the main risk factors for HIV transmission.

Sexual contact

HIV is most commonly transmitted through unprotected vaginal sex, when either the male or female partner can become infected. The HIV virus is present in the blood, semen and vaginal fluids of an infected person, so the risk factors for transmission are very high. The virus can be absorbed through the membranes lining the vagina and cervix, or through the urethra – the opening at the end of the penis. Heterosexual, vaginal sex means equal opportunities for HIV transmission.

Unprotected anal sex is also a high risk factor for HIV transmission, as the virus can be transmitted via the rectum or penis, especially if one or both partners has small tears or abrasions. And uncircumcised men are more at risk of transmission than circumcised men, according to a study by Kimberley Powers. The use of condoms can reduce the risk of HIV transmission during sexual contact. On rare occasions, the virus can be transmitted through oral sex, but the risk of HIV transmission via oral sex is considerably lower than from other forms of sexual contact.

Blood transmission

HIV can be transmitted via contaminated needles and syringes. This form of transmission usually occurs between drug users who share needles, although it can occur during tattooing and piercing operations, if proper hygeine procedures are not adhered to. At one time, HIV transmission was possible through blood transfusions, but modern screening practices have all but eliminated this risk factor. On rare occasions, health workers may become infected through accidental contact with infected needles. This occurrence is known as needle stick injury.

Mother to baby transmission

HIV can be passed to an unborn child via the placenta during pregnancy, during labour, or in the course of breastfeeding following delivery. Generally, according to Aidsmap, HIV is considered to be transmitted during late pregnancy or delivery. Use of anti-viral drugs during the pregnancy and labour, together with the option of a caesarean delivery and the decision not to breastfeed can reduce the risk of mother to child transmission to less than 1%.

Lifestyle

Certain lifestyle choices make HIV transmission more risky. Male homosexuals, drug users who share needles and heterosexuals who indulge in unprotected sex with numerous partners are more at risk of contracting HIV than other sections of society.

To avoid the risk of HIV transmission, it’s best to avoid unprotected sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Health workers should take appropriate precautions to avoid coming into contact with infected blood, and anyone considering a tatoo or body piercing should ensure that the practitioner observes stringent hygiene practices.