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How can HIV transmission be prevented?

HIV can be transmitted in three main ways:

* Sexual transmission * Transmission through blood * Mother-to-child transmission

Wherever there is HIV, all three routes of transmission will take place. However the number of infections resulting from each route will vary greatly between countries and population groups.

For each route of transmission there are things that an individual can do to reduce or eliminate risk. There are also interventions that have been proven to work at the community, local and national level.

To be successful, an HIV prevention program must make use of all approaches known to be effective, rather than just implementing one or a few select actions in isolation. The share of resources allocated to each area should reflect the nature of the local epidemic - for example, if most infections occur among men who have sex with men then this group should be a primary target for prevention efforts.

Although most of this page looks separately at each transmission route, it should be remembered that many people donít fit into only one ďrisk categoryĒ. For example, injecting drug users need access to condoms and safer sex counseling as well as help to reduce the risk of transmission through blood.

First requirements

There are three key things that can be done to help prevent all forms of HIV transmission. First among these is promoting widespread awareness of HIV and how it can be spread. Media campaigns and education in schools are among the best ways to do this.

Another essential part of a prevention program is HIV counseling and testing. People living with HIV are less likely to transmit the virus to others if they know they are infected and if they have received counseling about safer behavior. In particular, a pregnant woman who has HIV will not be able to benefit from interventions to protect her child unless her infection is diagnosed. Those who discover they are uninfected can also benefit, by receiving counseling on how to remain that way.

The third key factor is providing antiretroviral treatment. This treatment enables people living with HIV to enjoy longer, healthier lives, and as such it acts as an incentive for HIV testing. It also brings HIV-positive people into contact with health care workers who can deliver prevention messages and interventions. Studies suggest that HIV-positive people may be less likely to engage in risky behavior if they are enrolled in treatment programs. Nevertheless, it is also possible that widespread availability of treatment may make some members of the wider population less fearful of HIV infection, and hence less willing to take precautions.

Sexual transmission

What works?

Someone can eliminate or reduce their risk of becoming infected with HIV during sex by choosing to:

* Abstain from sex or delay first sex * Be faithful to one partner or have fewer partners * Using CONDOMS consistently and correctly

There are a number of effective ways to encourage people to adopt safer sexual behavior, including media campaigns, social marketing, peer education and small group counseling. These activities should be carefully tailored to the needs and circumstances of the people they intend to help. Specific programs should target key groups such as young people, women, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers.

Comprehensive sex education for young people is an essential part of HIV prevention. This should include training in life skills such as negotiating healthy sexual relationships, as well as accurate and explicit information about how to practice safer sex. Studies have shown that this kind of comprehensive sex education is more effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections than education that focuses solely on teaching abstinence until marriage.

Numerous studies have shown that condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are highly effective at preventing HIV infection. Also there is no evidence that promoting condoms leads to increased sexual activity among young people. Therefore condoms should be made readily and consistently available to all those who need them.

There is now very strong evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission from woman to man by around 50%, which is enough to justify its promotion as an HIV prevention measure in some high-prevalence areas. It is not known whether circumcision also affects the likelihood of male-to-female or male-to-male sexual transmission; further research on this issue is ongoing.

Another significant intervention is providing treatment for sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. This is because such infections, if left untreated, have been found to facilitate HIV transmission during sex.

One group that shouldnít be overlooked by HIV prevention programs is those who are already living with the virus. Regular counseling can help HIV positive people to sustain safer sexual behavior, and so avoid onward transmission.

What are the obstacles?

It is usually not easy for people to sustain changes in sexual behavior. In particular, young people often have difficulty remaining abstinent, and women in male-dominated societies are frequently unable to negotiate condom use, let alone abstinence. Many couples are compelled to have unprotected sex in order to have children. Others associate condoms with promiscuity or lack of trust.

Some societies find it difficult to discuss sex openly, and some authorities restrict what subjects can be discussed in the classroom, or in public information campaigns, for moral or religious reasons. Particularly contentious issues include premarital sex, condom use and homosexuality, the last of which is illegal or taboo in much of the world. Marginalization of groups at high risk - such as sex workers and men who have sex with men - can be a major hindrance to HIV prevention efforts; authorities are often unwilling to allocate adequate resources to programs targeting these groups.

Safe male circumcision demands considerable medical resources and some cultures are strongly opposed to the procedure.

Transmission through blood

What works?

People who share equipment to inject recreational drugs risk becoming infected with HIV from other drug users. Methadone maintenance and other drug treatment programs are effective ways to help people eliminate this risk by giving up injected drugs altogether. However, there will always be some injecting drug users who are unwilling or unable to end their habit, and these people should be encouraged to minimize the risk of infection by not sharing equipment.

Needle exchange programs have been shown to reduce the number of new HIV infections without encouraging drug use. These programs distribute clean needles and safely dispose of used ones, and also offer related services such as referrals to drug treatment centers and HIV counseling and testing. Needle exchanges are a necessary part of HIV prevention in any community that contains injecting drug users.

Also important for injecting drug users are community outreach, small group counseling and other activities that encourage safer behavior and access to available prevention options.

Transfusion of infected blood or blood products is the most efficient of all ways to transmit HIV. However, the chances of this happening can be greatly reduced by screening all blood supplies for the virus, and by heat-treating blood products where possible. In addition, because screening is not quite 100% accurate, it is sensible to place some restrictions on who is eligible to donate, provided that these are justified by epidemiological evidence, and donít unnecessarily limit supply or fuel prejudice. Reducing the number of unnecessary transfusions also helps to minimize risk.

The safety of medical procedures and other activities that involve contact with blood, such as tattooing and circumcision, can be improved by routinely sterilizing equipment. An even better option is to dispose of equipment after each use, and this is highly recommended if at all possible.

Health care workers themselves run a risk of HIV infection through contact with infected blood. The most effective way for staff to limit this risk is to practice universal precautions, which means acting as though every patient is potentially infected. Universal precautions include washing hands and using protective barriers for direct contact with blood and other body fluids.

What are the obstacles?

Despite the evidence that they do not encourage drug use, some authorities still refuse to support needle exchanges and other programs to help injecting drug users. Restrictions on pharmacies selling syringes without prescriptions, and on possession of drug paraphernalia, can also hamper HIV prevention programs by making it harder for drug users to avoid sharing equipment.

Mother-to-child transmission

What works?

HIV can be transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and later through breastfeeding. The first step towards reducing the number of babies infected in this way is to prevent HIV infection in women, and to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

There are a number of things that can be done to help a pregnant woman with HIV to avoid passing her infection to her child. A course of antiretroviral drugs given to her during pregnancy and labor as well as to her newborn baby can greatly reduce the chances of the child becoming infected. Although the most effective treatment involves a combination of drugs taken over a long period, even a single dose of treatment can cut the transmission rate by half.

A C section is an operation to deliver a baby through its motherís abdominal wall, which reduces the babyís exposure to its motherís body fluids. This procedure lowers the risk of HIV transmission, but is likely to be recommended only if the mother has a high level of HIV in her blood, and if the benefit to her baby outweighs the risk of the intervention.

Weighing risks against benefits is also critical when selecting the best feeding option. The World Health Organization advises mothers with HIV not to breastfeed whenever the use of replacements is acceptable, feasible, affordable, sustainable and safe. However, if safe water is not available then the risk of life-threatening conditions from replacement feeding may be greater than the risk from breastfeeding. An HIV positive mother should be counseled on the risks and benefits of different infant feeding options and should be helped to select the most suitable option for her situation.

What are the obstacles?

In parts of the United States with a lack of governement financial assistance, drugs and medical facilities limits what can be done to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Antiretroviral drugs are not widely available in many resource-poor counties and many women lack the resources needed to avoid breastfeeding their babies.

HIV-related stigma is another obstacle to preventing mother-to-child transmission. Some women are afraid to attend clinics that distribute antiretroviral drugs, or to feed their babies formula, in case by doing so they reveal their HIV status.

Politicians and leaders in all sectors must speak out openly about AIDS and not shy away from difficult issues like sex, sexuality and drug use.

An effective response requires strategic planning based on good quality science and surveillance, as well as consideration of local society and culture. All sectors of the population should be actively involved in the response, including employers, religious groups, non-governmental organisations and HIV-positive people. Many of the world's most successful HIV prevention efforts have been led by the affected communities themselves.

HIV epidemics thrive on stigma and discrimination related to people living with the virus and to marginalized groups such as sex workers. Their spread is also fueled by gender inequality, which restricts what women can do to protect themselves from infection. Protecting and promoting human rights should be an essential part of any comprehensive HIV prevention strategy. This includes legislating against the many forms of stigma and discrimination that increase vulnerability.