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Alphabet soup: a guide to HIV and AIDS terms

The HIV and AIDS field is notorious for the use of acronyms and jargon. Here is a handy guide to the most common terms and what they mean.

AIDS Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. The clinical syndrome caused by HIV. AIDS is not a virus and person is not ‘infected’ with AIDS. Avoid terms like ‘AIDS infected’ or ‘AIDS test’ – it is HIV that infects people and that is what is tested for.
HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus that causes AIDS by interfering with the body’s ability to fight off infections. A person who is living with HIV or who has tested positive for HIV may develop AIDS if not on treatment. Avoid the term ‘HIV virus’ (the V stands for virus).
PLWA and PLHIV People Living with AIDS, although the preferred term is People Living With HIV and the acronym PLHIV can be applied.
ARVs, ART and HAART Antiretrovirals are the medicines used to treat people living with HIV and AIDS. ART is Antiretroviral Therapy – the combination of ARVs used to treat people with HIV and AIDS. The standard treatment consists of a combination of at least three drugs called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) that stops HIV from replicating.
HCT, VCT and HTS HIV Counselling and Testing and Voluntary Counselling and Testing are terms that are no longer widely used in favour of HTS: HIV Testing Services, referring to the process of counselling and testing a person for HIV and referring them for treatment where necessary.
STIs Sexually Transmitted Infections. A group of infections passed from one person to another through unprotected sex or genital contact, including HIV. Avoid the term STDs as this is not now widely used.
CD4 Count The CD4 count is a test to measure how many CD4 cells a person has in their blood. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell, called T-cells, which find and destroy bacteria, viruses and other invading germs. HIV destroys CD4 cells so a CD4 count is one of the most important tests to measure disease progression in people who are living with HIV.
Viral Load Viral Load measures the amount of HIV present in the blood. Usually, the higher the viral load, the lower the CD4 count will be and vice versa. If a person living with HIV has started to take ART, then their viral load will reduce to a level that becomes undetectable – this shows that they have viral suppression.
TasP Treatment as Prevention. When people living with HIV are correctly treated with ARVs, their viral load can drop to almost undetectable levels (viral suppression). This means that they are much less likely to transmit HIV to others. Treatment with ARVs is thus being used as one of the ways to prevent the spread of HIV.
PEP Post Exposure Prophylaxis is a course of ARVs given to people who may have been exposed to HIV (such as rape victims or health workers with needle-stick injuries) to prevent them from becoming HIV positive. To be effective, PEP must be started within 72 hours of possible exposure to HIV and the entire 28-day course must be completed.
PrEP Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis is a combination of two ARVs given to people who are HIV negative, but who may be at high risk of contracting HIV, to prevent them from becoming HIV positive.
OVC & OVCY Orphans and Vulnerable Children are children who have been orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV and/or AIDS. The term is also used to describe children who are also made vulnerable by poverty, abuse or neglect. The term OVCY is used to include Youth.
AGYW Adolescent Girls and Young Women are more vulnerable to becoming HIV positive, because they may engage in age-disparate and transactional sex, experience a lack of economic empowerment and secondary schooling, or experience gender-based violence.
Key Populations: MSM, SW, TG & PWID Groups of people who are at greater risk of becoming HIV positive are called key populations. These include:

MSM – Men who have Sex with Men (this term is inclusive of men who do not identify as homosexual but who nevertheless have sex with men)

SW – Sex Workers

TG – Transgender people

PWID – People Who Inject Drugs (this term refers only to people who inject drugs as this is where the risk lies, not people who use drugs – PWUD)



Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people. The LGBTI community is disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS due to various risk factors and also stigma and discrimination which can reduce access to health services.
VMMC Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision is the complete removal of the foreskin of the penis by surgical means, particularly to help prevent men from becoming HIV positive. Evidence from clinical trials have shown that circumcision can significantly reduce a man’s chances of becoming HIV positive.


Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission is antiretroviral treatment for HIV-positive pregnant women to stop their babies from becoming HIV positive. PMTCT programmes have been so effective that the transmission rate from pregnant mothers to their babies has been reduced to under 2%.
GBV, IPV and VAW Gender Based Violence is acts which cause physical, sexual, financial and/or psychological harm, based on unequal gender relationships. Intimate Partner Violence is acts of violence within an intimate relationship such as violence against a girlfriend, partner or spouse. Violence Against Women is sometimes used as an umbrella term for GBV and IPV but it excludes men and boys as victims and is not the preferred term in South Africa. Victims of GBV have an increased risk of becoming HIV positive and women living with HIV have an increased risk of becoming a victim of GBV.
TB Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. TB often affects the lungs; this is called pulmonary TB. Although TB is curable and treatment is free, it is one of the biggest global health threats. People who are living with HIV are much more likely to develop TB so the two diseases are often screened for and treated together. TB is an AIDS-defining illness which means that it one of the diseases associated with AIDS, and used worldwide as a guideline for diagnosing AIDS.
MDR and XDR-TB Multi-Drug Resistant and Extensively Drug Resistant Tuberculosis are strains of TB that are resistant to first and second line medicines used to treat TB. MDR-TB is resistant to two first line medicines and XDR-TB is resistant to these two plus other second line injectable medicines. MDR and XDR-TB are caused by people not taking their TB medicine properly or not finishing their treatment. Both take much longer to treat than ordinary (drug-susceptible) TB, are harder to cure and are easier to transmit.
The NSP The National Strategic Plan for HIV, TB and STIs (2017-2022) sets out South Africa’s response to HIV, TB and STIs and guides the provision of prevention and treatment services by all sectors. Launched by the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) in 2017, this is the fourth such plan for South Africa.

Eliminating HIV is still not an achievable goal at the moment. However, proven strategies for the prevention and treatment of HIV are now available to give us the possibility of ending the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat. But we need to all work together to achieve this and the first step is to educate ourselves on how HIV and AIDS works and the impact of HIV and AIDS on people and communities.