HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a retrovirus that is spread through body fluids that affects specific cells of the immune system, called CD4 cells or T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body cannot fight off infections and disease. When this happens, HIV infection leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
HIV is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse (anal, vaginal or oral), transfusion of contaminated blood, sharing of contaminated needles, and between a mother and her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
So far, no safe and effective cure currently exists. Meanwhile, with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. Treatment for HIV is often called antiretroviral therapy or ART. It can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS and to death in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can have a nearly normal life expectancy. However, intolerance to side effects and appearance of resistant strains remain causes of concern.
There are cases of HIV present in every country of the world, but the distribution of these cases is far from being homogenous. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region most heavily affected. In Europe, a concentrated epidemiological pattern with regional disparities in terms of infection rates and populations at increased risk is observed.
The HIV epidemic in Belgium affects mainly two groups in the population: men who have sex with men (MSM) and heterosexuals from sub-Saharan origin (SAM). The incidence of new HIV diagnoses in Belgium in recent years has been the highest since the first AIDS cases were recorded in 1985.