HIV/AIDS fact sheet
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks and impairs the immune system, resulting in a chronic, progressive illness which leaves people vulnerable to serious infections and cancers. When the body’s immune system is severely impaired, the disease is known as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection.
What is my risk?
The risk depends on behaviours while travelling rather than the region or country you visit.
High risk activities include anything which puts you in contact with blood or bodily fluids, such as unprotected sex and exposure to unsterilized needles for medications or other substances (for example, steroids and drugs), tattooing, body-piercing or acupuncture.
Travellers who receive a blood transfusion or organ transplant may also be at risk in those countries that do not adequately screen the blood/organ supply for HIV and other viruses transmitted through blood and/or transplanted organs.
How is it transmitted?
- HIV is spread from one person to another through:
- unprotected sex (anal, oral or vaginal)
- shared needles or equipment for injection drug use
- unsterilized needles for tattooing, body-piercing or acupuncture
- blood transfusions or organ transplantation (in some countries, the blood or organ supply might not be properly screened, which increases the risk of HIV transmission by blood transfusions or organ transplantation)
- pregnancy, delivery and breast feeding (i.e., from an HIV-infected mother to her infant)
- occupational exposure in health care settings
- An infected person can transmit the virus both when they have symptoms and when they are symptom-free.
What are the symptoms?
- HIV may appear as a flu-like illness shortly after infection. These symptoms may include fever, rash, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes and glands. On the other hand, a person infected with HIV may have no noticeable symptoms at all in the early stage.
- Since HIV attacks the immune system, people infected with HIV get sick more often, and common viruses, bacteria and fungi can affect them more seriously.
Can HIV/AIDS be treated?
There is no cure for HIV/AIDS; however, antiretroviral drugs can slow the advancement of HIV and prevent the spread of the virus to others.
Where is HIV/AIDS a concern?
HIV/AIDS is a global concern. The UNAIDS AIDSinfo website provides more information on country-specific HIV infection rates.
If you are living with HIV/AIDS:
- Be aware that some countries have entry and visa restrictions for people living with HIV/AIDS.
- Pack enough medication to last your whole trip to avoid interrupting your treatment. You may not be able to get extra medication while you are abroad.
- For more information, visit the country advice and advisories for country specific information for travel and visitation restrictions, and/or directly contact the Canadian consulate office in the country you are planning to visit.
Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.
There is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection. The only way to eliminate your risk is to not engage in sexual or other activities where body fluids are exchanged. You can reduce your risk by following the recommendations listed below.
1. Practice safer sex:
- Always use latex or polyurethane male or female condoms correctly for every sexual contact.
- Use dental dams (rectangular pieces of thin latex) over the vagina or anus for a protective barrier during oral sex.
- Before travelling, pack your own supply of high quality condoms and dental dams.
- Other birth control methods do NOT protect you against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
2. Avoid behaviour which may increase your risk of HIV and other STIs, such as:
- Unprotected sex (anal, oral or vaginal).
- Sexual activity with commercial sex workers and/or strangers.
- Heavy partying, drinking or taking illegal drugs, which can change your sexual inhibitions or alter your ability to make decisions.
- Sharing needles, syringes, razors, toothbrushes or shavers.
- Exposure to unsterilized needles for tattooing, body-piercing or acupuncture.
3. Avoid injections, blood transfusions and organ transplantations unless it is an emergency:
- If you must receive blood or an organ while travelling, make sure that the donated blood/organ has been tested for HIV and other infections transmitted through blood.
- If you cannot ensure the blood/organ has been screened, and you do not require emergency care, return home for treatment.
4. Be aware of sexual violence:
- Occurrence of sexual violence varies around the world.
- If you are raped or assaulted, find medical attention immediately so HIV and STI testing, counselling and treatment can be provided as appropriate.
5. Get tested:
- If you think you may have been exposed to HIV infection, see a health care provider immediately to get tested, counselled and treated as appropriate.
- If you have been infected, it is important to ensure that all sex partners receive treatment.
- Be aware that some medical services overseas may not be at Canadian standards. Canadian consular services include limited medical assistance abroad, such as providing the names of local medical providers or contacting your family in Canada. Contact the Emergency Operations Centre or the local Canadian Embassy, Consulate, or High Commission.
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