The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is transmitted through blood and body fluids and gradually breaks down the immune system – over up to 10 years or more – leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. As immunodeficiency progresses, people begin to suffer from opportunistic infections. The most common opportunistic infection that (often) leads to death is tuberculosis.

Simple blood tests can confirm HIV status, but many people live for years without symptoms and may not know they have been infected with HIV. Combinations of drugs known as antiretrovirals (ARVs) help combat the virus and enable people to live longer, healthier lives without their immune systems deteriorating rapidly. ARVs also significantly reduce the likelihood of the virus being transmitted.

As well as treatment, MSF’s comprehensive HIV/AIDS programmes generally include health promotion and awareness activities, condom distribution, HIV testing, counselling and prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services. PMTCT involves the administration of ARV treatment to the mother during and after pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding, and to the infant just after birth.

Hover over the image below for an interactive guide to HIV/AIDS

interactive guide to HIV/AIDS

What causes HIV/AIDS?

HIV is most commonly spread by sexual activities and the exchange of body fluids.

It can also be transmitted through childbirth, breastfeeding and sharing needles.

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

While some people may develop symptoms similar to flu within the first two to six weeks of catching the virus, others may not show symptoms for many years while the virus slowly replicates.

Once the initial flu-like symptoms disappear, HIV will not show any further symptoms for many years.

Zuze Bingala was admitted to hospital with TB and cryptococcal meningitis related to advanced HIV
Zuze Bingala, 54 years old, was admitted to Nsanje district hospital with TB and cryptococcal meningitis related to advanced HIV. Photo: Luca Sola

Diagnosing HIV/AIDS

Despite the availability of affordable rapid tests for HIV, knowledge of HIV status remains low in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV prevalence is highest.

An estimated 60 percent of people living with HIV are unaware of their status and in some settings this figure is far lower; a study in Kenya in 2009 for example found that only 16 percent of HIV-infected adults knew that they were infected.

Treating HIV/AIDS

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, although treatments are much more successful than they used to be. A combination of drugs, known as anti-retrovirals (ARVs), help combat the virus and enable people to live longer, healthier lives without their immune system rapidly declining.

MSF HIV/AIDS programmes offer HIV testing with pre- and post-test counseling, treatment and prevention of opportunistic infections, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and provision of ARVs for people in the late stages of the disease.

Our programmes also generally include support to prevention, education and awareness activities to help people understand how to prevent the spread of the virus.

This page was last updated on 7 April 2017.


MSF provided care for 340,700 people living with HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral treatment for 247,000 people in 2015.