What is HIV?
HIV is a virus which damages the immune system so that people cannot fight off normal infections. When someone has HIV they are said to be 'HIV positive'. They have HIV in their blood. When a person first gets HIV they may still be very well but over time their body defences weaken against illness and they may eventually get life threatening illnesses like pneumonia, lung diseases or certain cancers. It is then that they have AIDS.
HIV and injecting
Some users who inject drugs share their 'works' with other users. Tiny traces of blood left in the syringe, on the needle or on other equipment used to make injection possible can carry the HIV virus, hepatitis B and C and other blood-borne infections. Some drug users have passed HIV to each other in this way.
In 2002, 2 per cent of people with HIV became infected by sharing injecting equipment with someone with HIV . The UK figures are small compared to some other countries. In the USA and Canada about 25 per cent of newly acquired HIV infections have been attributed to injecting drug use .
The rates of HIV infection amongst injecting drug users vary widely in different parts of the UK. In Liverpool it is very low. In London it is higher but it is highest of all in Edinburgh. This probably has something to do with the fact that Liverpool got off the mark early with widespread needle exchange schemes whereas this happened later and to less extent in Edinburgh.
There is a tendency to assume that all of these people are injecting heroin. Many of them will have used heroin, but in some areas other opiate-type drugs are injected as well as tranquillisers such as temazepam. Amphetamine injecting is quite common in some areas and in some, such as South Wales, possibly more prevalent than injecting heroin. Cocaine is also sometimes injected and there has been an increase recently in the number of people who inject steroids.
It does not matter which drug is being injected from a hepatitis or HIV risk point of view. All sharing of injection equipment is high risk with regard to hepatitis and HIV, no matter which drug is in the syringe.
Drug injectors should be encouraged to use the needle exchange schemes which have now been established in most parts of the country as part of the battle against hepatitis, HIV and AIDS. 'Clean works' are now available free of charge for all drug injectors to help them avoid becoming infected with these viruses or infecting others.
 Source: Understanding HIV and AIDS, Terrance Higgins Trust, 2003. Available online at www.tht.org.uk Source: AIDS Epidemic Update, World Health Organisation, 2003. Available online at www.who.int/en Updated Feb 2004