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HIV/AIDS Training for Washington Healthcare Professionals (4 Hours)

Online Continuing Education Course

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Course Description

4 hours of HIV/AIDS training for healthcare workers in Washington State. Course covers transmission and infection control, legal and ethical issues, psychosocial issues, and WA reporting requirements. Washington DOH approved.

Course Price: $40.00

Contact Hours: 4

Course updated on
September 1, 2020

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"Thank you for such an informative course on a sensitive topic. It was very well written." - Michael, student in Washington

"This course was great. I really learned a lot regarding HIV/AIDS and many socioeconomic factors as well." - Shannon, student in Washington

"I learned so much more with this course than I expected. Now I have a new appreciation for these patients." - Yvonne, massage therapist in Washington

"Very thorough and kept my attention." - Cora, medical assistant in Washington

Accreditation / Approval Information

This course contains important information specific to Washington State and is no longer mandated for licensure.

HIV/AIDS Training for Washington Healthcare Professionals (4 Hours)

The material presented in this course corresponds to Washington State’s HIV/AIDS curriculum manual, KNOW: HIV Prevention Education (7th ed.), and reflects current scientific understanding and updates from the CDC and other government agencies.

LEARNING OUTCOME AND OBJECTIVES:  Upon completion of this course, you will have increased your knowledge of HIV/AIDS in order to better care for your patients. Specific learning objectives to address potential learning gaps include:

  • Discuss the etiology and epidemiology of HIV in the United States and in Washington State.
  • Summarize the factors and risks for transmission of HIV in general and among healthcare workers in particular.
  • Identify preventive and control measures for HIV/AIDS.
  • Explain confidentiality and legal reporting requirements in Washington State.
  • Summarize the psychosocial issues associated with HIV/AIDS.


HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that spreads via certain body fluids and specifically attacks the CD4+ or T cells of the immune system. CD4+ T cells are also called helper T cells. They are the cornerstones of both inflammatory and regulatory responses of our immune system. T cells are lymphocytes that are predominantly produced in the thymus and play a key role in the immune system’s defense of the body against infection. As time passes, the virus can destroy so many of these specialized cells that the immune system no longer is able to fight off infections and disease.

HIV is unique among many other viruses because the body is unable to destroy the HIV completely, even with treatment. As a result, once a person is infected with the virus, the person will have it for the remainder of their life (CDC, 2019a).

Particles on a single T cell showing HIV virus infection

A single T cell (red) infected by numerous, spheroid shaped HIV particles (yellow). (Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 2012.)

After the initial infection and without treatment, the virus continues to multiply, and over a period of time (which can be ten years or longer), common opportunistic infections (OIs) begin to take advantage of the body’s very weak immunity. Common OIs can be life-threatening and may include:

  • Cryptococcal meningitis
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia
  • Esophageal candidiasis
  • Certain cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma

Once they have such an opportunistic infection, the person now is considered to have AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, the most advanced stage of the HIV infection (NIAID, 2019).

Origin and Strains of HIV

DNA analysis has identified the HIV-1 virus as originating in a strain of chimpanzees in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, around 1920. Chimpanzees were hunted for food, and it is believed that the simian (chimpanzee) version of the virus was most likely transmitted to humans following contact with the animal’s infected blood after ingestion of the meat. The simian immunodeficiency virus then mutated into the human form of the virus. HIV has existed in the United States at least since the mid to late 1970s (CDC, 2019a; Avert, 2019a).

HIV, like other viruses, changes over time, resulting in different strains (genetic variants or subtypes) of the virus. There are two main types of HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the most common, while HIV-2 is less common and accounts for fewer infections. The strains of HIV-1 can be classified into four groups: M, N, O, and P. The N, O, and P strains are quite uncommon, while group M is responsible for approximately 95% of all infections worldwide.

In 2020 a new strain of HIV was found for the first time in nearly 20 years. The newly discovered strain is part of group M and has been labelled as sub-type L. This new strain is important, but it does not pose a new public health threat since it occurs rarely and can be effectively treated with existing antiretrovirals (Yamaguchi et al., 2020).

Disease Pathogenesis

HIV is unable to grow or reproduce on its own and depends on a host cell for the raw materials and energy necessary for all the biochemical activities that allow the virus to reproduce. In order to accomplish this, it must locate and bind to a specific type of cell, a CD4+ T cell.

CD4+ T cells (or T-helper cells) are the cornerstones of both the inflammatory and regulatory responses of the immune system. They are a class of white blood cells that help other lymphocytes (memory B cells) that are responsible for remembering an antigen and producing an antibody to fight it based on stored data following exposure to it in the past.

Once the virus binds to the cell, it then enters the cell and eventually takes control of the cell’s DNA and begins to replicate itself. This leaves the T cell unable to perform its vital function as part of the immune system. The new HIV particles are then released from the cell into the bloodstream, where the process begins again in other T cells (Cachay, 2019).

Following transmission of the virus, the individual will typically progress through three stages of the illness.

  • Stage 1: Acute infection is the earliest stage, when seroconversion takes place, and the person is very contagious.
  • Stage 2: Clinical latency is a stage that can last for 10 or 15 years, during which time immunosuppression gradually develops. The person may be asymptomatic and can transmit the virus to others.
  • Stage 3: AIDS is the final, severe stage of HIV infection, at which point the immune system is severely damaged and opportunistic infections or cancers begin to appear.



Approximately 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV. From 2010 to 2017, the annual number of new HIV diagnoses decreased 9%. In 2018, there were an estimated 38,000 new HIV infections. Trends varied for different groups of people.

In 2018, 17,032 people in the United States and six dependent areas received a stage 3 (AIDS) diagnosis, and in 2017 there were 16,350 deaths (due to any cause) among adults and adolescents with a diagnosis of HIV (CDC, 2019b;, 2020a).

Gay and bisexual men are the population most affected by HIV. In 2018, they accounted for 69% of all HIV diagnoses:

  • HIV diagnoses among Black/African American gay and bisexual men remained stable.
  • HIV diagnoses among White gay and bisexual men decreased 19%.
  • HIV diagnoses among Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men increased 27%.

Heterosexuals and people who inject drugs also continue to be affected. In 2018:

  • Heterosexuals accounted for 24% of HIV diagnoses, with men accounting for 7% and women for 16%.
  • People who inject drugs accounted for 7% of HIV diagnoses, men 4% and women 3%.

By race/ethnicity, Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately affected by HIV.

  • Blacks/African Americans comprise 13% of the population and accounted for 42% of new diagnoses.
  • Hispanics/Latinos comprise 18% of the population and accounted for 27% of new HIV diagnoses.
  • 43% Black/African American
  • 26% Hispanic/Latino
  • 26% White
  • 2% Asian
  • <1% American Indian/Alaska Native
  • <1% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
  • 3% Multiple races
    (CDC, 2019b)

Across U.S. states and regions, there was an uneven distribution of new HIV diagnoses in 2018. The South had the highest percentage (51%), followed by the West (20%), the Northeast (16%), and the Midwest (13%).

U.S. map of HIV diagnoses by state, 2018

Rates of new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 people, 2018. (Source: CDC, 2019b.)


In 2018, an estimated 13,417 people in Washington State were living with the diagnosis of HIV, with 7,023 of those living in King County. Eighty-eight percent of these people were receiving medical care, and 81% were virally suppressed.

Washington State reported that there were 402 new HIV diagnoses in 2018, with 229 (54%) of these occurring among King County residents, which was the largest one-year increase since 2002. Of these 402 new diagnoses, 310 were male and 88 were female. The largest number was among those ages 25 to 34. Of note, there were no diagnoses among the pediatric population ages 13 and under.

Increase in people who inject drugs: The increase in diagnosis among King County residents has been attributed to a 400% increase in the number of new HIV diagnoses among persons who inject drugs. The number of new diagnoses in persons with other risks, including men who have sex with men and men who do not inject drugs, remained stable.

Homelessness among those with HIV: The increase in HIV among persons who inject drugs is concentrated among those who are homeless, and many of them are women who exchange sex. It is estimated that 11% of King County residents diagnosed with HIV were homeless in the past year.

Men who have sex with men: The diagnosis rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) has declined by more than 50% over the last ten years. However, MSM, including MSM who inject drugs, continue to make up the majority of new HIV infections in Washington State.

People of color: Black and Latinx populations are disproportionately affected by HIV. Foreign-born Black persons have the highest rate of new HIV diagnosis, although the majority of them may have acquired HIV prior to arrival in the United States.

Mortality rates among persons with HIV in the state have been stable at 1 per 100 over the past five years (WSDOH, 2019).


Transmission Routes

HIV is a weak virus that cannot survive without a human host and is not spread by casual contact. In order for HIV transmission to occur, there must be an HIV source, sufficient dose and virulence of the virus, and access to the bloodstream of another person.

Under certain conditions, HIV has been able to survive in dried blood at room temperature for up to 5 or 6 days, although the concentrations will be low to negligible. Once exposed to air and the fluid it is contained in begins to dry, HIV becomes damaged and inactive. Once inactive, it is no longer infectious.

HIV is transmitted from one person to another only through contact with certain body fluids, and transmission is only possible if these fluids come in contact with mucous membranes or damaged tissue, or are directly injected into the bloodstream (e.g., from a needle or syringe). Mucous membranes are located in the rectum, the vagina, the opening of the penis, and the mouth (USDHHS, 2020; CDC, 2019e).

HIV can only be transmitted through the following body fluids:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Preseminal fluids
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

In addition, any bodily fluid visibly contaminated with blood should be considered capable of transmitting HIV. These may include:

  • Cerebrospinal fluid
  • Amniotic fluid
  • Pleural fluid
  • Synovial fluid
  • Peritoneal fluid
  • Pericardial fluids

Unless blood is visibly present, HIV cannot be transmitted by:

  • Saliva
  • Sputum
  • Sweat
  • Tears
  • Feces
  • Nasal secretions
  • Urine
  • Vomitus

Other than those described above, HIV cannot be transmitted by:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Closed-mouth kissing
  • Insects
  • Pets
  • Sharing food or drinks
    (Waseem, 2019; CDC, 2019e)


Anal sex is the riskiest type of sex for infection by or transmission of HIV. Receptive anal sex is a greater risk than insertive anal sex. The receptive partner’s risk of getting HIV is very high because the lining of the rectum is thin and may allow HIV to enter the body during anal sex from body fluids that carry HIV, including semen or preseminal fluid.

The insertive partner is also at risk because HIV can enter the body through the urethra; the foreskin if the penis is not circumcised; or small cuts, scratches, or open sores anywhere on the penis. There is evidence that circumcision may decrease the risk for an insertive partner, but there is no evidence that it benefits the receptive partner (CDC, 2019b).

In extremely rare instances, HIV has been transmitted through oral sex. For the most part, there is little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex, but transmission of HIV is theoretically possible if an HIV-positive man ejaculates into his partner’s mouth during oral sex (CDC, 2019e).


HIV can live in blood inside a used needle for up to 42 days depending on the temperature and other factors. Sharing injection needles, syringes, and other paraphernalia with an HIV-infected person can send HIV (as well as hepatitis B and C viruses and other bloodborne diseases) directly into the user’s bloodstream. Paraphernalia with the potential for transmission include the syringe, needle, “cooker,” cotton, and/or rinse water (sometimes called “works”) (CDC, 2019e).


Due to careful donor selection criteria, it is very rare for HIV to be transmitted through a blood transfusion. However, despite the precautions, it may still occur. Theoretically there are three reasons; however, only the first has been documented to have occurred:

  1. Donations may be collected during the window period of infection, which is the interval of time after the donor becomes infected with HIV and before the development of positive findings on laboratory testing.
  2. Infection may occur from variant strains of HIV that may escape detection by current screening assays.
  3. Testing or clerical errors may occur.
    (Silvergleid, 2019)


There are no known cases in the United States of anyone becoming infected with HIV from tattooing, body piercing, or blood-sharing activities such as “blood brothers/sisters” rituals or ceremonies where blood is exchanged or unsterilized equipment contaminated with blood is shared.

There is, theoretically, a potential risk, especially during the time period when healing is taking place. It is also possible to become infected by HIV from a reused or not properly sterilized tattoo or piercing needle or other equipment, or from contaminated ink. The risk is very low but increases when the person doing the procedure is not properly trained and licensed (CDC, 2020e).


The use of HIV medications and other strategies have led to a lowered incidence of mother-to-child transmission of HIV to 1% or less in the United States and Europe. When women with HIV who are pregnant take HIV medications to reduce the risk of perinatal transmission, and when started early, mother-to-child transmission prevention is effective.

However, despite continued use of HIV medicines after childbirth, a woman with HIV can still transmit HIV to her child while breastfeeding. In the United States, infant formula is a safe and available alternative to breast milk, and it is for these reasons that women with HIV in the United States should not breastfeed their babies (USDHHS, 2020).

Additionally, babies should not eat food that was prechewed by a person with HIV, as the only known cases of HIV transmission by eating food that has been prechewed by a person with HIV are among infants (CDC, 2019e).

Type of Exposure Risk per 10,000 Exposures
(CDC, 2019b)
Blood transfusion (with infected blood) 9,250
Needle-sharing during injection drug use 63
Percutaneous (needle-stick) 23
Receptive anal intercourse 138
Insertive anal intercourse 11
Receptive penile-vaginal intercourse 8
Insertive penile-vaginal intercourse 4
Receptive oral intercourse Low
Insertive oral intercourse Low
Biting Negligible
Spitting Negligible
Throwing body fluids (including semen or saliva) Negligible
Sharing sex toys, razors, toothbrushes Negligible
* There may be a relatively small chance of acquiring HIV when engaging in a risk behavior with an infected partner only once; but, if repeated many times, the overall likelihood of becoming infected after repeated exposures is much higher.

At Risk Populations and Behaviors

HIV can infect anyone. However, there are certain groups at higher risk for HIV because of specific risk factors and behaviors.


Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are the population most affected by HIV in the United States. Gay and bisexual men ages 13 to 34 make up 64% of new HIV diagnoses among all gay and bisexual men. Most gay and bisexual men get HIV from having anal sex without protection (not using a condom or taking medicine to prevent or treat HIV) (CDC, 2019c).


In the United States, some racial and ethnic groups are more affected than others relative to their percentage of the population. Because there are higher rates of HIV in these communities, this raises the risk of new infections with each sexual or injection drug use encounter. Additionally, a range of social, economic, and demographic factors—such as stigma, discrimination, income, education, and geographic region—affect risk for HIV. These factors help to explain why African Americans have worse outcomes on the HIV continuum of care, including lower rates of linkage to care and viral suppression (, 2020b; CDC, 2020b).


The prescription opioid and heroin crisis has led to an increase in the number of persons who inject drugs (PWID), placing new populations at risk for HIV. This crisis has disproportionately affected those living in nonurban areas, where HIV prevalence rates historically have been low. These are areas that have limited services available for HIV prevention and treatment as well as for substance use disorder treatment.

A high-risk behavior among this population is sharing drug paraphernalia such as needles, syringes, and other drug injection equipment. In cities with high levels of HIV infection, 40% of new PWID (those who have been injecting for 5 years or less) reported sharing syringes. During the decade between 2005 and 2015, syringe sharing declined 34% among Black/African American PWID and declined 12% among Hispanic/Latinx PWID, but syringe sharing did not decline among White PWID. It has been found that PWID under age 30 are more likely to share syringes than older PWID.

These persons may also engage in risky sexual behaviors. This may include having sex without protection, having sex with multiple partners, or trading sex for money or drugs. It has been found that young PWID are more likely than older PWID to have sex without a condom, have more than one sex partner, and have sex partners who also inject drugs (CDC, 2020c).


The risk of HIV is high among individuals who exchange sex for money or other items, and many of them have a history of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, mental health issues, violence, and emotional/physical/sexual abuse by clients, intimate partners, and the police. All of these complicate screening and treating this population (Weibel, 2018).

Some transgender persons may be involved in this behavior because of discrimination and lack of economic opportunities, with the goal of generating income for rent, drugs, medicines, hormones, and gender-related surgeries (CDC, 2019b).


People who misuse alcohol or drugs are at an increased risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV. These substances are more likely to put them at risk by affecting the choices made about sexual behavior. A person who is inebriated might have more sexual partners, sex with someone they do not know, sex without using a condom, or more difficulty using a condom in the correct manner every time they have sex. They may also be more likely to share needles and other drug equipment. Drugs such as methamphetamine, poppers, and ecstasy are linked to having more sexual partners or sex without a condom (CDC, 2019b).


More than 2 million people in the United States are incarcerated in federal, state, and local correctional facilities on any given day. The rate of diagnosed HIV infections among inmates in state and federal prisons is more than five times greater than the rate among people who are not incarcerated, and most incarcerated people with HIV acquired it before entering a correctional facility (CDC, 2018a).

Prisoners are at high risk for HIV transmission related to engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors, being raped, using drugs and sharing needles, and tattooing with homemade and unsterile equipment. Overcrowding as well as stress, drugs, and violence weaken the immune system, making people living with HIV more susceptible to the development of opportunistic infections (Avert, 2017).

HIV testing programs are not systematically implemented in correctional facilities, which is partly the result of the need for resource allocation. Additionally, the rapid turnover among this population makes it difficult to test inmates for HIV and help them gain access to treatment. Inmates also have concerns about disclosing their high-risk behaviors for fear of being stigmatized (CDC, 2017; Weibel, 2018).


According to the CDC, in 2016 nearly half of the people in the United States and dependent areas living with diagnosed HIV were aged 50 and older. The number of older adults living with HIV is increasing because many people diagnosed with HIV at a younger age are growing older, and life-long treatment with HIV medications is helping them live longer and healthier lives. However, thousands of older people are also newly diagnosed with HIV every year.

Many risk factors for HIV are the same for adults of any age, but some age-related factors can put older adults at risk for HIV infection, such as age-related thinning and dryness of the vagina in older women. In addition, women who are no longer concerned about pregnancy may be less likely to use a condom when engaged in sexual activities.

Older people are less likely to get tested for HIV, as the signs and symptoms of HIV infection may be mistakenly attributed to aging or age-related conditions. For this and other reasons related to stereotyping and stigma, HIV is more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage in many older adults (USDHHS, 2020).


HIV diagnoses among women have declined in recent years; however, more than 7,000 women received an HIV diagnosis in the Unites States and dependent areas in 2017, making up 19% of all new HIV diagnoses. The majority of these women acquired HIV through heterosexual contact, and the highest percentage was among Black/African American women. One in 9 women with HIV are unaware they have it, and because many women may be unaware of their male partner’s risk factors for HIV, they may not use condoms or take HIV prevention medications.

In general, receptive sex is riskier than insertive sex, which means that women have a higher risk for acquiring HIV during vaginal or anal sex than their sex partners, with receptive anal sex being the riskiest behavior.

Women who have been sexually abused may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as exchanging sex for drugs, having multiple sex partners, or having sex without using a condom (CDC, 2020d).


HIV can be passed from mother to child anytime during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. In 2017, the CDC reported there were 73 new diagnoses of perinatal HIV in the United States, the greatest number of which were among Black/African American children. It is notable that perinatal diagnoses have decreased 41% since 2012. By 2017 in the United States, 11,915 people were living with HIV they acquired through perinatal transmission, and over 1,800 of them were children under the age of 13.

Women with HIV may not know they are pregnant, how to prevent or safely plan a pregnancy, or what they can do to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their unborn child. The risk of transmitting HIV to the baby is much higher if the mother does not remain on HIV treatment throughout pregnancy and childbirth or if HIV medications are not provided to the baby. The risk is also higher if the woman acquires HIV while she is pregnant.

In addition, social and economic factors, especially poverty, may make it harder for some women with HIV to access healthcare and remain on treatment (CDC, 2019d).


Transgender persons are people whose gender identity or expression is different from their sex assigned at birth. The CDC reported in 2017 that the percentage of transgender people who received a new HIV diagnosis was three times the national average, with over half occurring among Black/African American persons.

Certain behaviors and socioeconomic factors increase the risk for this population, including having multiple sex partners, anal or vaginal sex without protection, and sharing needles or syringes to inject hormones or drugs. Additional factors include commercial sex work, mental health issues, incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, and high levels of substance misuse compared to the general population.

Transgender persons are also placed at increased risk for HIV related to stigma, discrimination, social rejection, exclusion, violence, and lack of family support, all of which affect healthcare, education, employment, and housing (CDC, 2019c).

Other Factors Affecting Transmission Risk

Many other factors, alone or in combination, affect the risk of HIV transmission.


Viral load refers to the amount of HIV copies present in one milliliter of blood in someone who is HIV positive. Viral load is one of the most important determinants for HIV transmission.

When a person acquires the virus, it replicates in the blood. Initially a person’s viral load is typically high, and shortly after acquiring the virus, the load will drop as the immune system starts to fight the virus. Without treatment, however, the viral load will rise again as the virus starts to destroy CD4+ T cells.

As the viral load rises, the more copies of the virus there will be in the blood. The higher the number of copies found in the blood, the higher the number that will be present in other bodily fluids, such as vaginal fluid and semen.

The risk of HIV sexual transmission rises when the viral load is above 1,500 copies/ml. HIV-positive people who are taking HIV medicines and are virally suppressed are much less likely to transmit HIV. However, having a low or undetectable viral load (<40 to 50 copies/ml) does not eliminate the chance of infecting partners (Korobchuk et al., 2019; CDC, 2020f; Avert, 2020).


People who have a sexually transmitted disease (also called sexually transmitted infection [STI]) may be at an increased risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV. Some of the most common STDs include gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomoniasis, human papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes, and hepatitis.

One reason for this is that the behaviors that put people at risk for one infection often put them at risk for others. When a person with HIV acquires another STD such as gonorrhea or syphilis, it is likely they were having sex without using condoms. Also, STDs and HIV tend to be linked, and when someone gets an STD, it indicates they may have acquired it from someone who may be at risk for other STDs as well as HIV.

People with HIV are more likely to shed HIV when they have urethritis or a genital ulcer, and in a sexual partner, a sore or inflammation caused by an STD may allow infection that would have normally been stopped by intact skin. Even STDs that cause no breaks or open sores can increase the risk by causing inflammation that increases the number of cells that can serve as targets for HIV.

Both syphilis and HIV are highly concentrated among men who have sex with men, and men who have syphilis are at a very high risk of being diagnosed with HIV in the future. HIV is more closely linked to gonorrhea than chlamydia (common among young women), and herpes simplex (HSV-2) is commonly associated with HIV. Studies have shown that persons infected with herpes are at three times higher risk for acquiring HIV infection (CDC, 2019e; CDC, 2019f).


HIV acquisition rates are higher among uncircumcised males. This may be related to a high density of HIV target cells in the male foreskin. It has been demonstrated that circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission by 50% to 60%. However, circumcision in men with HIV does not appear to decrease the risk of HIV transmission to the female partner, and the effectiveness of circumcision in men who have sex with men has not been demonstrated (Cohen, 2019).

Prevention and Risk Reduction Methods

HIV is preventable. Nevertheless, new infections continue to occur despite the knowledge available about how the virus is transmitted and the means to prevent its transmission or acquisition. These include:

  • Sexual abstinence: Not having oral, vaginal, or anal sex is the only 100% effective option to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.
  • Limiting the number of sex partners: The more sex partners one has, the more likely one of them has poorly controlled HIV or has a partner with an STI.
  • Condom use: Using condoms correctly and every time when engaging in sexual activity will reduce HIV transmission risk.
  • HIV testing: It is recommended that individuals get screened for HIV and that they know the HIV status of their partner(s).
  • Screening and treating for STIs: Given the shared risk factors for HIV and other STIs, it is recommended that people at risk for HIV get screened and treated for STIs.
  • Stopping injection drug use: Or, if unable to stop injecting drugs, using only sterile drug injection equipment and rinse water and never sharing equipment with others. (AHF, 2019)

A male condom is a thin layer of latex, polyurethane (plastic), polyisoprene (synthetic rubber), or natural membrane (i.e., lambskin) worn over the penis during sex. A female condom is a thin pouch made of synthetic latex called nitrile and is designed to be worn in the vagina during sex.

Latex condoms provide the best protection against HIV. Polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms are good options for people with latex allergies, but plastic ones break more often than latex ones.

Natural membrane (such as lambskin) condoms have small holes in them and do not block HIV and other STDs (CDC, 2019a).

Both women and men may need instruction in the correct use of condoms:

  • Use latex or polyurethane condoms.
  • Put on a condom before having sex.
  • Read the package and check the expiration date.
  • Make sure there are no tears or defects.
  • Use water-based or silicone-based lubricant to prevent breakage.
  • Do not use nonoxynol-9 (a spermicide), as this can cause irritation.
  • Do not use oil-based products (e.g., baby oil, lotion, petroleum jelly, cooking oil) due to risk of breakage.
  • Do not use more than one condom at a time.
  • Do not reuse a condom.
  • Store condoms in a cool, dry place.
  • Do not store condoms in a wallet (due to risk of heat and friction damage).

Correct application of a male condom includes:

  • Before any genital contact, place the condom on the head of the erect (hard) penis. If uncircumcised, pull back the foreskin first.
  • Pinch air out of the tip of the condom.
  • Unroll the condom all the way down to the base of the penis.
  • After sex but before pulled out, hold the condom at the base, then pull out while holding the condom in place.
  • Carefully remove the condom, check for breakage, and throw it in the trash.
    (CDC, 2019a)


In addition to behavioral strategies, antiretroviral-based strategies have proven highly effective in preventing and reducing HIV transmission.

In infected persons, antiretroviral therapy medications prevent HIV from multiplying, reduce the viral load, and allow the immune system to recover and produce more CD4+ T cells. The main goal is to reduce the person’s viral load to an undetectable level that effectively decreases to zero the risk of transmitting HIV to others (USDHHS, 2020).

Women with HIV should take HIV medications during pregnancy and childbirth to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their babies. Newborn babies also receive HIV medications for 4 to 6 weeks after birth, which reduces the risk of infection from any HIV that may have entered the baby’s body during childbirth (CDC, 2019d).

In uninfected persons, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is medication taken daily to prevent HIV infection. The FDA has approved certain medications (e.g., Truvada, Descovy) for daily use as PrEP, and each medication has its own recommended use. Studies have shown that, when taken daily, PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection from sex by about 99% and reduces the risk among people who inject drugs by 74% to 84%. It is much less effective when not taken consistently (CDC, 2019i).

Eligibility criteria for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis is based on self-reported behavioral markers associated with high risk of acquiring HIV. People without HIV who are at risk and who should be assessed for PrEP include:

  • Sexually active gay and bisexual men
  • Sexually active heterosexual men and women
  • Sexually active transgender persons
  • Persons who inject drugs
  • Persons who have been prescribed postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) and report continued risky behavior or have used multiple courses of PEP
    (CDC, 2019j)

Postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) involves taking a combination of three antiretroviral medications after being potentially exposed to HIV to prevent becoming infected. Exposure may occur due to a broken condom during sex, when sharing needles and works to prepare drugs, following a sexual assault, or through occupational exposure.

To be effective, PEP must be started within 72 hours after a recent possible exposure to HIV and must be taken once or twice daily for 28 days. It is effective in preventing HIV when taken correctly, but it is not 100% effective. Therefore, the person is advised to continue to use condoms with sex partners and to use safe injection practices when taking PEP (CDC, 2019h).


Based on the most recent data, since 1985 there have been 58 confirmed and 150 possible cases of occupationally acquired HIV infection among healthcare workers. Since 1999, only one confirmed case has been reported (CDC, 2019g).

Risk for occupational HIV transmission varies by the type of exposure and is increased when the source has a high viral load, the volume is large, and the exposure is deep. Healthcare personnel at highest risk of transmission are those who have been inoculated percutaneously with blood from a source patient with HIV who is not on suppressive antiretroviral therapy and/or has a detectable viral load.

Among those working in healthcare, nurses have reported the most frequent blood and body exposures, followed by physicians who are residents or fellows, attending physicians, non-lab technologists, respiratory therapists, and certified nursing assistant/home health aides (Zachary, 2019).

Reducing Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens

Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-823 mandates that the rules for Safety Standards be followed for occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens as adopted under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act of 1973 (Chapter 49.17 RCW) and as enforced by the Department of Labor and Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health.


Under WAC 296-823, each employer covered must develop an exposure control plan containing at least the following elements:

  • A written “exposure determination” that includes those job classifications and positions in which employees have potential for occupational exposures
  • The procedure for evaluating the circumstances surrounding exposure incidents, including, including maintenance of a sharps injury log
  • The infection control system used in the workplace
  • Universal precautions or other at-least-as-effective infection control systems used
  • Documentation of consideration and implementation of appropriate, commercially available safer medical devices designed to eliminate or minimize occupational exposure
  • An update at least annually and whenever changes occur that affect occupational exposure


Employee prevention control in the healthcare setting involves following Standard Precautions at all times for all patients, assuming that blood and other body fluids are potentially infectious. These precautions include:

  • Routine use of barriers (such as gloves and/or goggles) when anticipating contact with blood or body fluids
  • Washing hands and other skin surfaces immediately after contact with blood or any other body fluids
  • Careful handling and disposing of sharp instruments during and after use


In 1991, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) introduced and published the Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, designed to protect workers in healthcare and related occupations from risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as HIV and HBV. In Washington State, all new employees or employees being transferred into jobs involving tasks or activities with potential exposure to blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM) must receive training in accordance with WAC 296-823-120 prior to taking on those tasks.

Mandated bloodborne pathogens training is to be provided by a qualified trainer and must include:

  • Providing and making sure personal protective equipment is worn when there is risk for an occupational exposure, including gloves, masks, eye protection, and face shields
  • Using appropriate equipment and safer medical devices to eliminate or minimize occupational exposure
  • Handling contaminated sharps and reusable sharps properly and safely
  • Minimizing splashing, spraying, splattering, and generation of droplets
  • Making sure items are appropriately labeled
  • Making sure employees wash their hands
  • Prohibiting food, drink, and other personal activities in the work area
  • Making sure the worksite is maintained in a clean and sanitary condition
  • Handling regulated waste properly and safely
  • Prohibiting pipetting or suctioning by mouth
  • Placing specimens in an appropriate container
  • Examining and labeling contaminated equipment

Full details for training requirements are found in the Washington Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens, Chapter 296-823 WAC. (See “Resources” at the end of this course.)


If a healthcare worker experiences an HIV exposure in the workplace, the person should follow the employer’s protocol, which is based on guidelines issued by the U.S. Public Health Service (Kuhar et al., 2018).

  • Clean the exposed area as recommended.
  • Report the exposure to the department or individual responsible for managing exposure.
  • Obtain medical evaluation as soon as possible.
  • Discuss with a healthcare professional the extent of the exposure, treatment, and follow-up.

OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) requires employers to make immediate confidential medical evaluation and follow-up available for workers who have an exposure incident.

Management of exposure requirements include:

  • A confidential medical evaluation and follow-up to be completed at no cost to the employee
  • Testing the blood of the source person
  • Providing the results of the source person’s blood tests to the exposed employee as well as the healthcare professional evaluating the employee
  • Determining appropriate postexposure management
    (WA L&I, 2018)

(See also “Resources” at the end of this course.)


Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Chapter 296-823 WAC, Occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens (2018) postexposure requirements, include:

  • Make a confidential medical evaluation and follow-up available to employees who experience an exposure incident.
  • Test the blood of the source person.
  • Provide the results of the source person’s blood test to exposed employee.
  • Collect and test the blood of the exposed employee.
  • Provide information to the healthcare professional evaluating the employee.
  • Obtain and provide a copy of the healthcare professional’s written opinion on postexposure evaluation to the employee.


The 2018 updated U.S. Public Health Services guidelines for management of occupational exposures to HIV and recommendations for postexposure prophylaxis include:

  • Determine HIV status of exposure source patient.
  • Start PEP medication as soon as possible after occupational exposure and continue for a 4-week period.
  • Include three or more antiretroviral drugs in PEP medication regimens.
  • Provide close follow-up, beginning within 72 hours of an HIV exposure.
  • If a newer 4th generation combination HIV p24 antigen-HIV antibody test is utilized for follow-up HIV testing, conclude HIV testing in 4 months post exposure; if not, conclude HIV testing in 6 months post exposure.

Information regarding the most current PEP regimen is available to any clinician from the Post-Exposure Prophylaxis Hotline (PEPline): 888-448-4911.

The National Clinician Consultation Center provides free consultation and advice based on established guidelines and the latest medical literature on occupational exposure management to clinicians, including:

  • Assessing the risk of exposure
  • Determining the appropriateness of prescribing PEP
  • Selecting the best PEP regimen
  • Providing follow-up testing
    (NCCC, 2020)

Preventing Transmission in the Home Care Environment

Healthcare professionals and other caregivers who care for HIV patients at home or in home-like settings are also at risk of exposure to HIV and other bloodborne pathogens. Nurses, nursing assistants, personal care assistants, and family members may experience percutaneous injuries and other exposures to blood and body fluids during care of an HIV-infected person.

Medical procedures contributing to percutaneous injuries in home care include injecting medications, performing fingersticks and heelsticks, and drawing blood. Other contributing factors include sharps disposal, contact with waste, and patient handling.

Healthcare workers should follow Standard Precautions and the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard when working in patients’ homes and other home-like settings.


Gloves (latex, vinyl, or nitrile in the case of latex allergy) should be worn whenever a caregiver anticipates contact with any body substance (blood/OPIM) or nonintact skin.

When a task is completed, gloves should be carefully removed by pulling them off inside-out, one at a time, avoiding contact with any potentially infectious material. Gloves should be changed and hands washed as soon as possible. Never rub the eyes, mouth, or face while wearing gloves. Disposable gloves should never be washed and reused. Correct handwashing is critically important.


Wear appropriate gloves when cleaning blood from skin surfaces. Use sterile gauze or other bandages and follow normal first-aid techniques to stop any bleeding. After applying a bandage, remove the gloves slowly so that fluid particles do not splatter or become aerosolized. Hands should be cleaned using either soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as soon as possible.

On vinyl floors, pretreat body fluid spills with full-strength liquid disinfectant or detergent; then wipe up with either a mop and hot soapy water or appropriate gloves and paper towels. Dispose of paper towels into a well-marked plastic bag or heavy-duty container. Broken glass should be swept up using a broom and dustpan (never bare hands).

Use a disinfectant (such as 1 part household bleach freshly mixed with 10 parts water) to disinfect the area where the spill occurred. If a mop was used for cleaning, soak it in a bucket of hot water and disinfectant for the recommended time. Empty the mop water into the toilet, not the sink. Sponges and mops used to clean up body fluid spills should not be rinsed in the kitchen sink or in a location where food is prepared.

On carpeting, pour dry kitty litter or another absorbent material onto the spill to absorb the body fluid. Carefully pour full-strength liquid detergent onto the carpeting and leave it there for the amount of time indicated in the manufacturer’s instructions. Using sturdy rubber gloves, blot the spill with paper towels until it is absorbed. Vacuum normally afterward. Dispose of debris, paper towels, or soiled kitty litter in a sealed plastic bag placed inside another plastic garbage bag.


Clothes, washable uniforms, towels, or other laundry stained with blood/OPIM should be washed and disinfected before further use. If possible, have the patient remove the clothing. If necessary, use appropriate gloves to assist with removing the clothes.

If the washing machine is not close by, transport the soiled items in a sturdy plastic bag. Then place the items in the washing machine and soak or wash them in cold, soapy water to remove any blood from the fabric. (Hot water will permanently set blood stains.)

Use hot water for a second washing cycle and include detergent, which will act as a disinfectant. Dry the items in a clothes dryer. Wool clothing or uniforms may be rinsed with cold, soapy water then dry cleaned to remove and disinfect the stain.


Use a new pair of gloves to change diapers. Remove gloves carefully and wash hands immediately. Cloth diapers should be washed in very hot water with detergent and a cup of bleach and dried in a hot clothes dryer.


Sponges and mops used in the kitchen should not be used to clean body fluid spills or bathrooms. All sponges and mops should be routinely disinfected with a fresh bleach solution or other similar disinfectant.


It is safe to share toilets/toilet seats without special cleaning, unless the surface becomes contaminated with blood/OPIM. If this occurs, spray the surface with 1:10 bleach solution. Wearing gloves, wipe the seat dry with disposable paper towels.

Persons with open sores on their legs, thighs, or genitals should disinfect the toilet seat after each use. Urinals and bedpans should not be shared between family members unless these items are thoroughly disinfected after each person’s use.


Electronic thermometers with disposable covers do not need to be cleaned between uses for the same individual unless visibly soiled. Wipe the surface with a disinfectant if necessary. Glass thermometers should be washed with soap and warm water before and after each use. If the thermometer will be shared among family members, after each use it should be soaked in 70% to 90% ethyl alcohol for 30 minutes then rinsed under a stream of warm water.


People should not share razors, toothbrushes, personal towels or washcloths, dental hygiene tools, vibrators, enema equipment, or other personal care items.


Syringes, needles, and lancets are called sharps, and their disposal is regulated. Sharps can carry hepatitis, HIV, and other bacteria and viruses that cause disease. Throwing them in the trash or flushing them down the toilet can pose health risks for others (such as sanitation workers, other utility workers, and the public) from needlesticks and illness. Rules and disposal options vary according to circumstances, so it is essential to check with the local health department to see which option applies to any given situation.

Parents and caregivers should make sure that children understand never to touch a found needle or syringe but to immediately ask a responsible adult for help.

Safe disposal of syringes found in parks and other public locations should follow these guidelines:

  • Do not pick up a found syringe or needle with bare hands. Use gloves and tongs, shovel, or a broom and dustpan to pick it up. Hold the needle away from the body.
  • Do not break the needle off from the syringe.
  • Place used sharps and syringes in a safe container with at least a one-inch opening and a lid that will seal tightly, such as an empty plastic laundry detergent container or glass bottle or jar. If a glass jar is used, place it in a larger plastic bucket or container that has a tight-fitting lid. Soda cans are not good containers to use because people often try to recycle discarded cans. Do not flush needles or syringes down the toilet.
  • Tape the container shut for added safety and label it with the warning: “SHARPS, DO NOT RECYCLE!” Place it well out of reach of children.
  • Call the local health department to determine what disposal sites are available.

Anyone with an accidental needlestick requires prompt assessment by a medical professional. Testing for HIV, HCV, and HBV may be recommended. If someone finds and handles a syringe but no needlestick occurs, testing for HIV is not necessary.


Kitchens can harbor bacteria that may prove life threatening to a person with HIV/AIDS due to their compromised immune system. Use the following precautions during food preparation and cleanup:

  • Wash hands thoroughly before preparing food.
  • Use a clean spoon to taste food, and wash the spoon after using it once.
  • Avoid unpasteurized milk, raw eggs or products that contain raw eggs, cracked or nonintact eggs, and raw fish. Cook all meat, eggs, and fish thoroughly to kill any organisms that may be present. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
  • Disinfect countertops, stoves, sinks, refrigerators, door handles, and floors regularly. Use window screens to keep out insects.
  • Discard food that has expired or is past a safe storage date, shows signs of mold, or smells bad.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and for fruits and vegetables. Avoid wood cutting boards if possible. Disinfect cutting boards frequently.
  • Keep kitchen garbage in a leak-proof, washable receptacle that is lined with a plastic bag. Seal the garbage liner bags and change bags frequently.


Certain animals can pose hazards for people with compromised immune systems. These animals include turtles, reptiles, birds, puppies and kittens under the age of eight months, wild animals, and pets without current immunizations or with illnesses of unknown origin. Pet cages and cat litter boxes can harbor infectious organisms that may become aerosolized. Pets can also spread disease by licking a person’s face or open wounds.

  • All pet care should be followed by thorough handwashing.
  • Cats’ claws and dogs’ nails should be kept trimmed.
  • Latex or nitrile gloves should be worn to clean up any pet urine, feces, vomit, or OPIM. The soiled area should be cleaned with a fresh 1:10 bleach solution.
  • Pet food and water bowls should be washed regularly in warm, soapy water and rinsed clean.
  • Cat litter boxes should be emptied out regularly and washed at least monthly.
  • Fish tanks should be kept clean. Heavy latex gloves that reach to the upper arms, such as “calf-birthing” gloves, can be purchased from a veterinarian for immunocompromised individuals to wear to clean a fish tank.
  • Pets should not be allowed to drink from the toilet or eat other animal feces, any type of dead animal, or garbage.
  • Cats should be restricted to indoors. Dogs should be kept indoors or on a leash.

Many communities have volunteer groups and veterinarians who will assist people with HIV to take care of their pets, if needed.


Legal standards are set forth in the form of written laws passed by governments. Ethical considerations are based on the principles of right and wrong and guide how laws can be obeyed. These issues include confidentiality and anonymity, informed consent, criminalization laws, disability and discrimination, and HIV reporting requirements.


Washington law provides severe penalties for anyone who discloses confidential HIV information. Accidental information breaches must be immediately reported to and investigated by the Washington State Department of Health (WA DOH, 2020).

In Washington State, people who perform HIV counseling and testing in public health departments or health districts sign strict confidentiality agreements that regulate the personal information that may be revealed in counseling and testing sessions and test results.


Confidential testing means that the person’s name and other identifying information will be attached to the test results, will go into the medical record, and may be shared with the person’s healthcare providers and health insurance company. Otherwise, the test results are protected by state and federal privacy laws and can only be released with the individual’s permission.

With confidential testing, when an individual tests positive for HIV, the test result and the person’s name are reported to the state or local health department to help public health officials better estimate rates of HIV infection in the state. The state health department then removes all personal information about the person and shares the remaining nonidentifying information with the CDC. The CDC does not share this information with anyone else, including insurance companies (, 2018).

In Washington State the following entities are permitted access to HIV test results:

  • The person tested
  • A person with a release of information from the tested person
  • Health officials, in accordance with reporting requirements for diagnosed sexually transmitted diseases
  • Facilities that collect blood, tissue, or semen
  • Health officials, first responders, or victims of sexual assault who petition the court to order testing
  • A person allowed access to information by a court order
  • Local law enforcement if health officers have exhausted procedures to stop behaviors that present a danger to the health of the public
  • Payers of health claims
  • Agencies or guardians responsible for children under the age of 14 with an STD
    (King Co., 2017)


Anonymous testing means that nothing ties the test results to the person. When the person takes an anonymous HIV test, they receive a unique identifier that allows the person to obtain the test results. In Washington State, any person authorized to order or prescribe an HIV test for another individual may offer anonymous HIV testing without restriction, however anonymous tests are not available at every location that provides testing (, 2018; WSL, 2018).


In Washington State partner notification is required, and counseling services are provided to HIV-positive people and their sex and/or injection equipment-sharing partners. This service is provided using a variety of strategies to maintain the confidentiality of both the HIV-infected individual and the partners.

HIV-infected people are contacted by either a local health officer or the principal healthcare provider to provide post-test counseling about the importance of notification. They can notify their partners themselves or have public health staff notify their partners. When public health staff notify partners, they do not identify the person who tested positive (WSL, 2019).

Informed Consent

Each state has its own laws regarding informed consent. In Washington State, informed consent specific for HIV testing is not required, making the level of consent the same as it is for testing for other serious diseases. Providers can routinely test for HIV without having to create extra documentation. Washington State also requires all patient information to be kept strictly confidential, and records must be managed and stored in a secure manner (RCW 70.02 and RCW 70.24) (CHLP, 2020a).


Minors are persons who do not have the legal rights and responsibilities of an adult. Minors’ ability to access HIV testing and pre- and postexposure prophylaxis treatment without parental or guardian consent varies throughout the United States. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the CDC finds there is no jurisdiction that explicitly prohibits minors’ access to PrEP without parental/guardian consent. In Washington State minors age 14 or older can independently access STD diagnosis and information regarding prevention and both pre- and post exposure prophylaxis treatment (CDC, 2018b; WA DOH, 2018).

HIV Criminalization Laws

In the United States, close to 30 states support laws that prosecute people living with HIV. Some of these laws criminalize HIV transmission if a person does not disclose their HIV-positive status before sex, whether or not the person transmits the virus to another. The maximum sentence for violating an HIV-specific statute is a matter of state law, and some states have a maximum sentence length as high as life in prison (CDC, 2019n, Weibel, 2018).

In 2020, Washington State passed a bill that reformed the state’s HIV criminalization law. The bill reduces penalties for HIV exposure from a felony to a misdemeanor that requires specific intent to transmit HIV and for transmission to occur. The bill also removes the requirement for sex offender registration. Before this reform, the law carried a felony conviction (punishable by up to life in prison) for exposure, which required neither intent to transmit nor that transmission occurred.

If a person misrepresents their status to a sexual partner, intends to transmit, and transmission occurs, they are subject to the higher penalty level of gross misdemeanor. This reform retains the felony penalty for people living with HIV who are convicted of transmitting HIV to a child or vulnerable adult. Such a conviction still requires registration as a sex offender (CHLP, 2020b).

Disability and Discrimination

HIV infection and AIDS are medical disabilities, and people living with HIV or AIDS are protected under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 against discrimination by:

  • Employers
  • Places of accommodation (includes businesses that are open to the public)
  • State and local government entities

Section 504 prohibits health and human service programs or organizations that receive federal funds or assistance from discriminating against HIV/AIDS patients. These entities may include:

  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Social services agencies
  • Drug treatment centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Dentists’ offices
  • Daycare providers
  • Public pools
  • Fitness gyms

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS in many different types of dwellings (, 2017).

The Washington State Law Against Discrimination (RCW 49.60) prohibits both public and private employers with eight or more employees, including employment agencies and labor unions, from discriminating against those with either HIV or hepatitis C infection. Nonprofit religious or sectarian organizations are exempt from the law’s coverage (Williams, 2018).

Employees who feel they are being discriminated against should first document the discrimination, speak with their supervisor, and follow the entity’s internal process to file a discrimination charge. However, it is not necessary to file an internal grievance. If these remedies do not work, the employee should contact the federal Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or the Washington State Human Rights Commission. An aggrieved person can also file directly in state court; a complaint must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory incident.

HIV Reporting Requirements

Washington State requires all HIV and AIDS cases to be reported. Providers who diagnose a person must submit a confidential case report to the local health department within three days. Positive HIV results obtained through anonymous testing are not reportable. However, once a patient with positive results seeks medical care for conditions related to HIV or AIDS, the healthcare provider must then report the case to the health department.

If a person who tests positive for HIV infection fails to return for test results, the healthcare professional must provide the local health officer with the name of the individual and any information that could help locate them. The health officer will follow up to assure that post-test counseling and partner notification assistance are provided.

Laboratories are required to report each test result, including:

  • Tests confirming HIV infection
  • HIV viral load results, both detectable and undetectable
  • T cell lymphocyte results of any value

For each result, the lab must provide the date of collection, name of the requesting healthcare provider, and patient information.

Providers conducting clinical HIV research are exempt from reporting the identity of HIV-positive individuals participating in research projects (WSL, 2019).


Patients with all stages of HIV disease have complex problems that include overlapping medical, psychiatric, and psychosocial comorbidities. There is a great deal of evidence that impairment in mental health leads to negative health outcomes among people living with HIV/AIDS. Mental disorders can be a substantial barrier to adequate engagement and retention in HIV primary care. Many factors contribute to the high comorbidity of HIV and mental health conditions, including significant structural, social, and biological challenges to accessing and adhering to HIV prevention and treatment modalities (Remien, 2018).

Identifying mental health issues among people living with HIV is critical; however, far too often they go undiagnosed and untreated. People may not want to reveal their psychological state to healthcare workers for fear of stigma and discrimination. Healthcare workers may not have the skills or training to detect psychological symptoms and may fail to take the necessary action for further assessment, management, and referral if symptoms are present. Psychosocial concerns should be assessed on a regular basis to identify stressors that may impact patient adherence to medical visits and medications (MHA, 2020).

Psychosocial Impacts

There are a number of significant negative effects on individuals who have been diagnosed with HIV that involve the interrelation between their mental and emotional well-being and their social environment.


Often, the first task for an HIV clinical care team is helping patients and family members cope with the psychosocial impact of the diagnosis. Being diagnosed with any chronic health condition can be extremely stressful, and it is normal to have an emotional reaction when given the diagnosis of HIV. However, when stress becomes prolonged and is not treated, more serious mental health conditions may develop.

There are many stressors that may arise when someone receives a diagnosis of HIV. These might include having trouble getting the services needed, managing HIV medications, disclosing the HIV-positive diagnosis to others, losing contact with family or friends who fail to understand the realities of the disease, and dealing with the stigma that has long been associated with HIV/AIDS (MHA, 2020).

With the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy, HIV infection is now manageable as a chronic disease in patients who have access to medication and who achieve durable virologic suppression, but mortality remains approximately six times higher in persons with HIV than the general population, and receiving a diagnosis of HIV means accepting the potential for a shorter lifespan (Rathbun, 2019).


At some point people living with HIV must decide whether and to whom to disclose their HIV status. In Washington State, a partner must be notified either by the individual or by public health. Most people disclose their status to their spouse or partner within a short time following diagnosis, and this can strain the relationship. The negative effects may be mitigated by professional couples counseling.

There are also concerns that stigma and fear may deter an individual’s dating partner from proceeding further in the relationship, and disclosing to family and friends brings about the potential stress of becoming the subject of gossip among other family members, friends, and acquaintances (CDC, 2020k).


There are people who have experienced the loss of many friends from their social network as a result of AIDS, particularly in the earlier days of the epidemic, and grieving may have become an ongoing experience. Today, with antiretroviral drugs, there is now a low rate of progression from HIV to AIDS, and HIV-positive people are no longer primarily dying of AIDS-defining illness.

Unacknowledged grief of same sex partners, lovers, and friends may be an issue if an individual’s relationship is not recognized as legitimate beyond a small circle of friends. Today, in the United States, community attitudes have changed, and with society’s wider acceptance of homosexuality, more education about HIV, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, this is gradually lessening.

Another common issue an HIV-infected person may have is grief over the loss of a sense of the future. For some who, in the past, were told they would die, there is a sense of sorrow for having not pursued interests because of the perception of a shortened life-expectancy. This can leave the person with feelings of anger and bitterness (GriefLink, 2019).


Around the world and in many areas of the United States, homosexuality and use of illegal drugs, both risk factors for HIV infection, continue to be stigmatized. Some hold false beliefs that contribute to stigma, which can include:

  • HIV and AIDS are always associated with death.
  • HIV is associated with behaviors people disapprove of.
  • HIV is only transmitted through sex, a taboo in some cultural groups.
  • HIV is the result of irresponsibility or moral faults, and punishment is deserved.
    (Avert, 2019b)

HIV stigma drives discrimination in all areas of society, including healthcare, education, the workplace, the justice system, families, and communities. Although there have been significant improvements, there continues to be a risk that people who are infected with HIV are more likely to feel stigmatized and isolated. Fearing that their diagnosis will result in the judgmental behaviors of others, rejection, and abandonment, many may hide the true cause of their illness, informing only a few of their family and friends, and sometimes informing no one. This isolation and lack of support increases their emotional and spiritual pain.

HIV-related stigma is often connected with other sources of stigma, including those associated with mental health and/or substance use disorders. For HIV-infected persons with comorbid mental health disorders, there is a double burden of stigma (Mahlaser, 2020). Social stigma associated with both homosexuality and HIV is identified as a stressor that may contribute to a higher suicide rate in HIV-positive individuals (GriefLink, 2019).

Internalized stigma (self-stigma) is as damaging to the mental well-being of people with HIV as stigma from others. Negative self-judgment results in shame, feelings of worthlessness, and blame, affecting the person’s ability to live positively and limiting qualify of life (Avert, 2019).


Because of the advancement of effective antiretroviral therapy, the increased life expectancy for persons diagnosed with HIV is contributing to a rapidly aging HIV-infected population with a high prevalence of comorbidities.

For patients with HIV/AIDS who are approaching the end of life, creating advance directives that outline their choices and preferences for care can be difficult. One of the most important decisions is whether and when to discontinue ART. This is particularly difficult and stressful for both the patient and family because it may be seen as “giving up.” With continued treatment the patient may choose palliative care, and if treatment is to be discontinued, the choice for hospice care during the last six months of life recognizes that treatment is no longer of benefit and the disease will run its course (Merlin et al., 2019).

Neuropsychiatric Effects of HIV/AIDS

The term neuropsychiatric encompasses a broad range of medical conditions that involve both neurology and psychiatry. There is a high prevalence of neuropsychiatric disorders among those infected with HIV, which may be related to the direct effect of the virus, preexisting psychiatric conditions, personality vulnerabilities, affective disorders, addictions, and responses to social isolation.

HIV itself increases the risk of neuropsychiatric conditions because it causes major inflammation within the body. The entire brain, including the lining, becomes inflamed as a result of the body’s immune response, causing irritation and swelling of brain tissue and/or blood vessels, resulting in nontraumatic brain damage over the long term. Having brain damage such as this is a known risk factor for the development of a neuropsychiatric condition.

Because HIV affects the immune system, the person also has an increased risk for other infections that can affect the brain and nervous system and lead to changes in behavior and functioning.

Starting antiretroviral therapy can affect a person’s mental health in different ways. Some antiretroviral medications have been known to cause symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbance and may make some mental health conditions worse (MHA, 2020; Pieper & Teisman, 2020).


Clinical depression is the most commonly known and reported psychiatric disorder among those with HIV, affecting 22% of the population. HIV increases the risk of developing depression through direct damage to subcortical brain areas, chronic stress, worsening social isolation, and intense demoralization. Patients with symptomatic HIV disease are significantly more likely to experience a major depressive episode than those with asymptomatic disease.

Critical “crisis points” are common entry points for the development of depression in HIV-infected people and can include:

  • Initial HIV diagnosis
  • Disclosing HIV status
  • Introduction of new medications
  • Recognition of new symptoms and disease progression
  • Hospitalization
  • Physical illness
  • Death of a significant other
  • AIDS diagnosis
  • Returning to work, going back to school
  • Major life events such as relocation, change of jobs, loss of a job, pregnancy or giving birth, end of a relationship
  • Making end-of-life and permanent planning decisions
    (Lieber, 2020)

A patient with depression may present with the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of pleasure from activities
  • Anorexia
  • Morning insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of suicide

Depression is common among women with HIV and may be a contributing factor to negative outcomes in this population. It has been found that each additional 365 days of depressive symptoms were associated with a 72% increase in the mortality risk (Aberg & Cespedes, 2020).

Depression is an important factor in adhering to ART, with a high probability that patients with depression are more likely not to stay actively engaged in care and to miss at least one dose of their ART regimen. Treatment for depression helps patients better manage both diseases, enhancing survival rates and quality of life (Mahlasera, 2020).

Depression is a problem in the lives of adolescents and young people living with HIV related to additional challenges such as accessing mental health services, the high cost of medications, disease progression, difficult life events, and fear of parental rejection (Mahlaser, 2020; GriefLink, 2019).


Anxiety disorders are estimated to be present in up to 40% of HIV-positive patients, but the prevalence of anxiety symptoms without a diagnosed disorder is even higher. Symptoms are twice as common in women as in men and can be prominent when patients are diagnosed with HIV and in response to progression of the illness. Anxiety can increase the likelihood of HIV risk behaviors and ART nonadherence.

The most common anxiety disorders in HIV patients are generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Up to 50% of patients with anxiety disorders have comorbid depression, and alcohol use disorder is also common, especially among women (Hsu et al., 2018).


Patients with HIV infection have a higher exposure to traumatic events than the general population and as a result are at high risk for the development of PTSD. PTSD exacerbates HIV risk behaviors and negatively impacts health outcomes. PTSD resulting from early trauma predisposes individuals to engage in sex or drug behaviors that increase the risk of HIV infection. PTSD often coexists with depression and substance use, both of which are risk factors for HIV (Pieper & Teisman, 2020).


Mania in HIV-infected patients is a syndrome occurring in the late stage of the infection that has been associated with HIV dementia and rapid deterioration. AIDS mania occurs in the absence of a previous family or personal history of bipolar disorder and is characterized by typical manic behaviors, auditory or visual hallucinations and paranoia, and cognitive changes. AIDS mania is associated more with irritability rather than the euphoria associated with bipolar disorder and is also far more chronic.

AIDS mania presents with impulsivity, impaired judgment, and risk taking, all of which can lead to behavior that accelerates HIV disease progression.

In contrast to bipolar mania, AIDS mania usually does not remit if left untreated. The prevalence of AIDS mania has been significantly reduced due to the onset of potent ART but remains a problem among untreated and undertreated individuals (Pieper & Teisman, 2020).


Changes in attention, memory, concentration, and motor skills are common among HIV-infected individuals. When such changes are clearly attributable to HIV infection, they are classified as HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders. HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders have not declined significantly with the advent of combined ART, but milder cognitive deficits without alternative explanation remain common in the setting of HIV infection.

HAND is characterized by the subacute onset of cognitive deficits, central motor abnormalities, and behavioral changes. Cognitive decline is the essential feature in HAND, but many patients have mild deficits that are detectable only by neuropsychological testing and do not reach the criteria necessary for a diagnosis of dementia, which includes the inability to perform the usual activities of daily living.

Depending on the severity and impact on the person’s daily functioning, cognitive deficits can be classified into three conditions:

  • Asymptomatic neurocognitive impairment (ANI)
  • HIV-associated mild neurocognitive disorder (MND)
  • HIV-associated dementia (HAD)
    (Price, 2017; Johns Hopkins, 2020; Peters & Triesman, 2017)

Although it varies by stage of disease, at least mild HAND occurs in one third to one half of HIV-infected individuals, and 5% of individuals with HIV have signs and symptoms that meet criteria for serious HAND.

Risk factors for HAD include high serum or cerebrospinal fluid HIV viral load, low education level, advanced age, anemia, illicit drug use, and female gender. The dementia is characterized by:

  • Impairment in concentration and attention but not in judgment
  • Memory deficits
  • Mental slowing, apathy, and lack of motivation
  • Impaired psychomotor speed and precision

HAD is related to the effect of HIV on subcortical and deep grey matter structures and occurs mainly in patients who are untreated with advanced HIV infection. Unlike other neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease), deficits occurring in HAD may come and go over time.

Patients with HAD may also have changes in mood that can progress to psychosis with paranoid ideation and hallucinations, and some may develop mania (Price, 2017; Pieper & Teisman, 2020).

Mental Health Interventions

Psychosocial concerns are assessed on a regular basis to identify stressors that may impact the patient’s adherence to treatment. Given the strong evidence for the contribution of mental health and behavioral problems to poor HIV health outcomes, it is necessary to integrate mental health screening and mental health treatment into ongoing HIV care.

Interventions range from supportive psychotherapy for grief and loss issues to treatment of specific HIV-associated neuropsychiatric conditions. They may include pharmacology, cognitive and/or behavioral therapy, stress management, motivational interviewing, interpersonal therapy, supportive interventions, and meditation.

Studies have found that the greatest positive effects occur when lengthier and multilevel interventions are used and when they are integrated into community-based healthcare settings. Interventions that include family interactions and peer support, as well as those delivered by mental healthcare professionals, have been found to be the most effective (Remien, 2018).

Issues for Families and Caregivers

The psychological suffering and grief experienced by people with HIV/AIDS is also shared by family members, friends, caregivers, and partners. Partners and families are often the people who provide most of the physical and emotional care for individuals with chronic illness, including HIV. This can be very stressful and lead to tension among members of the family.

Some of the issues that may arise when a family member has been diagnosed with HIV include:

  • The diagnosis may reveal behaviors that the person may have wanted to keep private. These might include sexual behaviors or intravenous drug use, which can result in feelings of guilt or blame and can lead to a relationship breakdown.
  • Fear of stigma and discrimination may mean that the diagnosis is kept secret. This can prevent immediate family members from the wider support of extended family members or the community.
  • A family with a child who is infected with HIV must consider when and how to disclose this information to the child.
  • Conflicts may arise in regard to religious or cultural beliefs.
  • Parents may find it problematic to discuss sexual behavior and risk with younger children, which can have prevention implications for them later on.
  • When a child with HIV reaches adolescence, problems can arise concerning adherence to treatment and safe sexual behavior.
  • Members of the family may disagree about the best course of treatment.
  • Family members may have to cope with the mental health problems that commonly develop in people who are living with HIV.
    (AAMFT, 2019)
  • Seek support from other caregivers.
  • Become educated about HIV, ART, and comorbidities.
  • Take care of your own health so you are strong enough to take care of your loved one.
  • Accept offers of help and suggest specific things people can do to help you.
  • Learn how to communicate effectively with healthcare providers.
  • Take respite breaks often.
  • Be watchful for signs of depression and get professional help when needed.
  • Be aware and open to new technologies that can help caregiving efforts.
  • Organize medical information so that it is up to date and easy to locate.
  • Make certain that legal documents are in order.
    (NFCA, 2017)

Issues Affecting Special Populations

HIV/AIDS takes a heavy toll on all ethnicities, genders, ages, and income levels. However, some populations have been uniquely affected by the epidemic. Some of these populations include men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, people with hemophilia, women, and people of color.


Even with the continuing advancements being made in HIV prevention and treatment, men who have sex with men remain the population impacted most by HIV/AIDS. These sexual minorities include people who have sexual contact with persons of the same or both sexes and include gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender men. Transgender women in certain communities also have higher odds of infection. These individuals are disproportionately affected by psychological problems, which may include distress, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders.

The high prevalence of mental health problems among these groups compared with heterosexual men has been attributed to sexual minority stress. Mental health problems are the consequences of distressing environments, including stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. Negative psychological outcomes may include expectations of rejection, hiding and concealing, and problematic coping strategies (Batchelder et al., 2017).


People with HIV who use injection drugs are a population with extensive psychiatric, psychological, and medical comorbidities, the most significant being major depression. Depression is associated with worsening of addictions and resistance to treatment. Depressed patients often find it difficult to engage in, invest in, and sustain treatment.

Personality factors also contribute to greater risk-taking and increased sensitivity to rewards. These individuals are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, while greater sensitivity to rewards is associated with increased sensitivity to the reinforcing properties of and decreased sensitivity to the consequences of drug use.

Because of the recent epidemic of prescription and nonmedical opioids, there is an increased number of people who inject drugs, resulting in many more at significant risk for HIV. Where drug use was more common in urban areas, more nonurban and rural areas are now being affected. These were areas formerly at low risk for HIV and often have limited HIV services and substance use disorder treatment programs available.

In addition, people who inject drugs are often viewed as criminals rather than as having a medical issue that requires treatment. Mistrust in the healthcare system may prevent these people from seeking HIV testing and treatment (Weibel, 2018).


In recent years there has been an increasing number of patients with perinatally acquired HIV entering adulthood, and this has provided insight into the obstacles and challenges unique to this population. These are related to being highly ART experienced, the psychosocial stressors of disclosure, and their own sexual and reproductive health. These young people report that anger and blame toward their biological mothers has a tremendous impact on their lives and self-care.

The prevalence of psychiatric and behavioral problems in perinatally HIV-infected children is higher than in the general population, and these comorbidities complicate treatment adherence and retention in care. Nonadherence increases the risk of HIV transmission and is worsened by anxiety surrounding the issue of disclosure to partners (Wang’ongu et al., 2018; Gillespie, 2019).


Despite the passage of time and advances in prevention and treatment, HIV/AIDS continues to affect many people around the world. Today’s younger people are living in a time when the disease is known to be controllable, and they may have limited knowledge about the history of HIV/AIDS and a lesser sense of urgency or concern about it. However, the public’s attitude toward the populations that are currently in the forefront of the epidemic remains one of stigmatization.

In the medical field, research has produced ever more effective drugs that slow the disease but do not stop it, and the cost of these drugs remains beyond the reach of many. No vaccine has proven effective in preventing HIV, and so the epidemic continues to spread, primarily among those high-risk persons living in disadvantaged and marginalized groups: the poor, people of color, people in prison, people who inject drugs, people who exchange sex for money or goods, and men who have sex with men. Many do not realize they are infected and may unknowingly transmit the virus to others.

The key to controlling this epidemic is prevention. Since most HIV infection is the result of sexual transmission, the most important prevention method is to refrain from unprotected sexual intercourse—vaginal, anal, or oral—unless it takes place within a monogamous relationship. The CDC recommends using latex condoms consistently and correctly and, when considering a sexual relationship, avoiding any type of sexual contact with someone who is unknown, is known to have had several sexual partners, or regularly uses syringes to inject drugs. Secondly, HIV is spread among injection drug users by the sharing of needles. Education and intervention must extend to these individuals to discourage the sharing of any type of drug paraphernalia.

Healthcare professionals have a vital role in meeting the goals for elimination of new HIV infections. These are built on the following key strategies:

  • Educating patients, families, and communities about prevention
  • Diagnosing all individuals with HIV as early as possible
  • Treating people with HIV rapidly and effectively to achieve sustained viral suppression
  • Preventing new HIV transmissions by using proven interventions, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and advocating for syringe services programs (SSPs)
  • Providing compassionate and nondiscriminatory healthcare to those who have contracted this life-impacting disease


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