How people became infected with HIV

It was usually difficult for people to pin point the time they got infected with HIV since the effects of HIV are not immediate' There can be a 'window period' of up to 3 months from infection until the body produces antibodies to HIV (i.e. seroconversion - where a person changes from being HIV negative to HIV positive). And AIDS may only develop many years later if at all. 

Some people experienced a 'seroconversion illness' with lack of energy, tiredness, sweats, joint pains, flu-like symptoms, gum infections, weight loss, glandular fever like symptoms and rashes. One man said he had lost a stone in weight and, not suspecting the cause, had been rather pleased. During a seroconversion illness people may take a few months to become HIV positive. One man's doctor told him, 'Even though your tests are negative, I am convinced you are HIV positive.' Many other people did not recall having a seroconversion illness either because it was too mild or they did not experience any symptoms. Other people did not want to know if the symptoms they had were due to HIV because of fear. One man who had a seroconversion illness said he, 'Could not afford to think about it.'

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People sometimes got an HIV diagnosis at the time of seroconversion particularly if they were very ill and needed to be hospitalised. Some gay men knew about seroconversion illness and strongly suspected what was happening to them when they had symptoms. 

Others said they or their health professionals sometimes mistook their seroconversion illness for allergies, a bad flu, glandular fever or even syphilis. After seroconversion people usually become well and it can be many years before they develop any HIV-related illnesses or AIDS if at all.

When and how infection happened
People believed they were infected in a wide range of ways including:

  • unprotected anal and vaginal sex in casual encounters
  • unprotected sex in relationships: 'I was in a steady relationship, but then I realised my relationship was not that steady,' said one man.
  • sexual assault and rape 
  • injecting drugs
  • by being unlucky or 'vulnerable' even when having safe sex: 'We were careful almost to the point of being clinical. So it was just bad luck really,' said one man. 'I was burning the candle at both ends… you do become more vulnerable,' said another man.
  • use of contaminated medical equipment & blood transfusions (e.g. in Africa)

Some people felt they could pin point the incident where they got HIV. Some of these people said that drugs, alcohol or psychological difficulties (e.g. depression) played a part in their risky sex at the time.

Many people gave up wondering how they were infected because the question brought up painful memories, could never be answered for sure and did not change the fact they had HIV. One man said, 'I don't know whether I infected him or he infected me… I have no idea and we don't know when,' said one man about his relationship.

Although people do sometimes get HIV from having unsafe sex only once, HIV transmission does not necessarily happen every time you have unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner. The risk is very low indeed if the HIV positive person is on effective treatment (i.e. their viral load is undetectable).

People who believed they might have been exposed to HIV in the past 72 hours could get access to Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), although ideally this should be started within 24 hours of exposure. PEP is a month-long course of HIV drugs the same ones taken by people with HIV. The sooner PEP is started, the more likely it is to work. For PEP to work the drugs must be taken for four weeks. If someone stops taking it before 28 days it is unlikely that it will work. It is accessible at all sexual health clinics or, when these are closed, Accident & Emergency departments. One man said, 'If a condom splits on a weekend, I've got to go to Accident & Emergency in order to get hold of this treatment. There should be a clinic somewhere you can go and pick up these pills to prevent someone else getting the virus.'

Last reviewed May 2017.

Last updated May 2017.


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