What is Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a disease that damages a person’s immune system. The virus affects people only so the name includes the word human. Immunodeficiency means that the immune system is weak or deficient and unable to fight off infections. A virus is a small germ that reproduces itself in the body and can be passed between people in certain situations. People can live a healthy long life being HIV positive if proper treatment and care are taken.

What is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)?

AIDS is the last stage of HIV. It occurs when the immune system is so weak it is unable to fight off any infections. The word acquired means receiving something from somewhere or someone else. In the case of AIDS, the HIV virus is received from the blood of an infected person. Immunodeficiency means that the immune system is weak or deficient and unable to fight off infections. Syndrome means that the disease is a collection of infections, not just one. The immune system is unable to fight these infections and this can eventually lead to death. It usually takes a long time before HIV will develop into AIDS.

How is HIV/AIDS Spread?

HIV can be transmitted through the following body fluids:
  • blood
  • semen
  • pre-cum
  • vaginal fluid
  • anal fluid
  • breast milk

HIV can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy, during and after delivery.

HIV can affect anyone who is exposed to infected fluids and/or has engaged in a risky activity regardless of age, gender, economic background, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnic origin.

Risky activities that may lead to HIV infection include having unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex or by sharing of substance use equipment. You cannot get HIV/AIDS from:
  • hugging
  • kissing
  • holding hands
  • sharing food or drink
  • public washrooms
  • swimming in public pools
  • exposure to tears, saliva or sweat

Mothers can pass HIV on to their baby in three ways. The baby can receive the virus during pregnancy as HIV can pass through the placenta. During childbirth and delivery, the baby can be exposed to HIV positive infected blood and become infected. HIV is also present in breast milk and can be passed to the baby after birth during breastfeeding or by using breast milk.

How Do I Avoid Getting HIV?

  • If you choose to have sex, practice safer sex (sex with proper use of a condom from start to finish).
  • If you are sexually active, it is important to get tested for HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If both partners are HIV positive, unprotected sex can also result in re-infection, also known as superinfection.
  • Avoid sharing needles/rigs or personal sharps, such as razors, that may be exposed to infected blood.
  • Use gloves when providing first aid.
  • Ask those using needles, e.g., tattoo artists and acupuncturists, if the needles are new.

How Do I Know if I Have HIV?

Most people with HIV do not show symptoms for several years after infection. This means that they may not know that they have been infected. Even if no symptoms are present, the virus can still be passed to other people.

Some people develop what is called acute retroviral syndrome two to four weeks after initial infection as the body tries to remove the virus from the body. Symptoms appear flu-like with a fever (fever is a temperature of higher than 38°C/100°F), rash, joint pains, and/or enlarged lymph nodes.

How Do I Find Out if I Have HIV?

A blood sample needs to be taken to test for HIV. The test is done to see if there are antibodies to HIV present in the blood. Antibodies are proteins in the body that try to destroy unknown bacterium or viruses. If there are antibodies it means the body knows that there is a virus present and it is trying to fight off the infection.

If the first HIV test is positive, a second test will be done to make sure the test results were right. People who have HIV but no symptoms are highly infectious and can transmit the virus to others.

Can HIV Be Cured?

There is no cure for HIV. Once people contract HIV, they will have the virus for the rest of their lives. HIV cannot be cured but there are medications that can help those with the virus to manage the symptoms and live longer. It is recommended that treatment begin as soon as possible to lower viral loads (amount of virus present in blood). A positive test does not mean that a person has AIDS.

HIV and Pregnancy

Can HIV/AIDS Positive Status Affect Fertility?

Research has shown that HIV may have an impact on fertility for men and women who are HIV positive.

For women, it has been suggested that HIV complications may include early menopause or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) which can result in pain, ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus where the fetus cannot survive) or infertility (unable to have babies).
For men, HIV may affect the ability to produce healthy sperm, which may lead to infertility.

How Will a Positive Test Result Affect the Mother and the Baby?

Women living with HIV can have healthy babies. Women living with HIV who do not receive treatment have a 25% chance of passing HIV to their babies. With proper care and treatment, the risk of transmission of HIV can be reduced to less than 2%. Testing for HIV during pregnancy can help women to get earlier treatment and learn how to manage their disease.

Women who are HIV positive and pregnant, or are considering getting pregnant, are faced with many challenges. It is important to find a health care professional who is supportive and knowledgeable about HIV and pregnancy. This will result in the best care being given to the mother and baby.

Can I Breastfeed if I am HIV Positive?

It is recommended that mothers living with HIV do not breastfeed their babies. There is a 25 to 50% chance that a baby can be infected with HIV from the breast milk of an infected mother. In Saskatchewan, free formula is available to infants born to mothers living with HIV. For more information, please visit: www.skhiv.ca.

HIV Testing

Tests for HIV detect whether HIV antibodies are present in a person’s body. Antibodies are proteins in the body that try to destroy unknown bacterium or viruses. Antibodies are produced by the immune system in response to the HIV infection being present in a person’s body.

Antibodies can take awhile to develop. For most people HIV antibodies take three months to develop. This means that people can have the virus in their bodies and still get a negative test result if they are tested within three months after being infected. For this reason, it is important for people involved in risky activities to have repeat testing. Women should be tested when they first find out they are pregnant and if at high risk, they should also be tested several times during the pregnancy.

HIV antibody testing can be done by a family doctor, at an STI clinic or at an HIV anonymous testing clinic. STI clinics and anonymous HIV testing clinics are located in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Anonymous testing clinics do not require that clients give their names. HIV testing is free.

Standard Testing

The standard primary test used in Saskatchewan is the ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay). The Western Blot is also used to confirm the results. It can take several days to receive the results from this test. Both these tests are performed by using blood samples.

Point of Care Testing

HIV Point of Care (POC) testing provides results of HIV testing in a few minutes. INSTI HIV-1 Rapid Antibody Test is a new test that is being used in Saskatchewan. This test is being used in obstetric settings (women during pregnancy and delivery), in blood and bodily fluid exposures, with ill patients at risk of HIV and with patients at high risk for HIV in community settings. This test is not used for general public. As with other HIV tests, this test requires a blood sample.

Anonymous HIV Testing

Anonymous HIV testing uses a number or a code, not the person’s name. Only the person being tested will know the result. Anonymous testing is different from HIV tests performed by a person’s doctor, or certain clinics, where the HIV test results will be linked to the patient’s name. Anonymous HIV testing in Saskatchewan can be done at the following clinics:

101 15th Street East
Prince Albert, SK

Phone: (306) 765-6540

2110 Hamilton Street
Regina, SK

Phone: (306) 766-7779

100-310 Idylwyld Drive North
Saskatoon, SK

Phone: (306) 655-4642

Hope for the Future DVD

Hope for the Future: Having a Healthy Pregnancy While Living with HIV (Full Video – 26 Minutes) shares information about HIV, pregnancy, and parenting, with the goal of showing that healthy pregnancies and healthy babies are possible for pregnant women living with HIV in Saskatchewan. The knowledge and experiences of people living with HIV and those that work in this area are shared. The DVD was created as a resource for health and allied health professionals and for people living with HIV in Saskatchewan.

The DVD shares information about the experiences of a mother and a father living with HIV, as well as those of a young adult who was perinatally infected. The following professionals also share their knowledge about HIV and their experiences working with pregnant women living with HIV: an infectious diseases specialist, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, a nurse, a nurse practitioner, a clinical pharmacist, and an HIV outreach support worker. It is the hope that in sharing these experiences and knowledge, women living with HIV will be supported to have the healthiest pregnancies and babies possible.

The DVD can be viewed in its entirety or as individual chapters, as listed below.

This video chapter provides basic information about HIV, including information about vertical transmission of HIV. The importance of HIV treatment is stressed. Finally, three people living with HIV (a mother, a father, and a young adult who was perinatally infected) discuss their HIV diagnosis.


This video chapter provides information about the impact of HIV and HIV treatment on pregnancy. The importance of HIV treatment for insuring a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby is also discussed.


This video chapter discusses the importance of accessing care and being as healthy as possible when planning a pregnancy while living with HIV. The importance of HIV treatment options is highlighted.


This video chapter discusses the importance of pregnant women living with HIV accessing care early and staying engaged in care to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies. A mother living with HIV talks about her pregnancy, including how she accessed care and support services. The availability of these types of services in Saskatchewan is highlighted.


This video chapter discusses the importance of support during pregnancy for women living with HIV. The steps taken during pregnancy, labour and delivery, and following delivery to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV to the baby are also discussed. Finally, a mother living with HIV shares her own pregnancy experience, including the healthy birth of her son.


This video chapter provides information for health and allied healthcare providers about effectively engaging pregnant women living with HIV in care. Suggestions from healthcare providers and people living with HIV are included. The importance of engaging pregnant women in care for reducing the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is also highlighted.


This video chapter shares the hopes of health and allied healthcare providers for pregnant women living with HIV. A mother and a young adult living with HIV also share their hopes for themselves.

HIV and Pregnancy On-Line Learning

HIV and Pregnancy

To promote further awareness of HIV in Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute has created three PowerPoint presentations to be used to educate about HIV and Pregnancy.

If you require an electronic version in PowerPoint in order to customize your presentation, please contact the program coordinator at info@skprevention.ca

E-learning Projects

It is important to ensure that services and programs are delivered to women living with HIV in a non-judgemental and unbiased fashion to counteract their fears and any misinformation they may have received. By providing education and training, the discrimination and stigma faced by women living with HIV can be reduced. This reduction can lead to improved care, increased likelihood of women seeking testing and treatment, and therefore, a reduction in the number of babies born with HIV. The following three e-learning projects provide information on HIV and pregnancy.

Pregnant, Using Drugs, and Living with HIV is an interactive YouTube video that talks about how substance use and tobacco use affect a pregnant woman living with HIV and mother-to-child-transmission. To view video click here.

Healthy Eating for Pregnant Women Living with HIV provides information about how a healthy nutritional status may lower the chance of HIV transmission to the baby. Adobe Flash is required to access the following projects. Click here for the free download.

Understanding the Connection between Sexual Violence and HIV examines the interconnections between childhood sexual abuse, violence against women, and HIV-risk related behaviours. Adobe Flash is required to access the following projects. Click here for the free download.

Links

  • AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan

    is a community based, not for profit organization that helps women, men, and children living with HIV/AIDS in Regina and Southern Saskatchewan.

  • AIDS Saskatoon

    is the primary AIDS service organization serving Central and Northern Saskatchewan. They provide outreach, education, advocacy, and support for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C (HCV).

  • All Nations Hope Network

    is a network of Aboriginal people, organizations and agencies, who to provide support and services to First Nations, Métis and Inuit families and communities who are experiencing HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C.

  • Canadian AIDS Society

    is a national coalition of over 120 Canadian community-based organizations helping people living with or affected by HIV.

  • Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE)

    is a national knowledge exchange broker for information related to HIV prevention and treatment, care and support for people living with and vulnerable to HIV.

  • Positive Women’s Network

    is a partnership of women living with and affected by HIV.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    (CDC) provides leadership in helping control the HIV/AIDS epidemic by working with partners in surveillance, research, and prevention and evaluation activities.

  • HIV Medication Guide

    mission is to provide the most up-to-date information related to drug – drug interactions involving antiretroviral agents for treatment of HIV.

  • What Works for Women in HIV/AIDS Interventions

    provides a review of over 2000 articles and reviews specific to issues about women and HIV.

  • Sage

    is a community-driven space for organizations and other HIV and hepatitis C service providers in Canada to share and archive their digital information resources and connect with peers in the field.

Resources