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Why don't small quantities of HIV lead to AIDS?

Dec 11, 1996

Dear Mr. Sowadsky: I've read repeatedly that the quantities of HIV in urine and saliva are so small that it is generally believed that transmission of HIV through these liquids is improbable. Nevertheless, these liquids do contain some HIV, and these bodily fluids have most certainly been exchanged between two people, which means that some HIV can be inside a person, but that person will not become infected. So what exactly happens inside the body that prevents smaller quantities of HIV from infecting a person? Is there just a better likelihood that the body's immune system can remove small quantities of HIV before it has a chance to reproduce? And for that matter, is it possible to be exposed to a high concentration of HIV and still not become HIV+, and if so, why? Thanks in advance for your response.

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Hi. Thank you for your questions.

Nobody ever said that it's impossible to become infected by saliva, tears, sweat and urine. However we can say that the probabilities of becoming infected through any of these body fluids are extremely remote. The concentrations of HIV in these body fluids are so low, that to date, nobody has ever been infected through any of these body fluids. So technically/theoretically, there is a risk of infection through these body fluids. But realistically, the levels of HIV in them are so low, that in the 15+ years that we have tracked this disease, we have not seen any cases of transmission from any of these body fluids. The chances that the extremely small amounts of HIV present in these body fluids will get into the bloodstream of another person, are extremely small. Therefore the probability of infection from these body fluids, although theoretically possible, are realistically extremely remote. However, if these body fluids have visible blood in them, then there would be a realistic chance of infection.

There is no evidence of a successful immune response against the virus, when the body is exposed to small quantities of HIV. Preliminary evidence does indicate that some people may have a genetic resistance to HIV, but this is only in a small number of people, and the evidence of this is still preliminary.

If a person is exposed to a body fluid which has a lot of the virus in it (blood, pre-cum, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk), they may still not get the infection. If the virus doesn't get into the bloodstream, the person will not become infected. There is an element of chance that determines whether a person becomes infected or not. A person can be exposed to HIV one time and get infected. Or they can be exposed 100 times, and still not get infected. If the virus doesn't get into the bloodstream, they will not get infected. But the more times a person is exposed to HIV, the greater the chance that they will become infected. But it's never a guarantee that being exposed to HIV will lead to infection. Some people are simply luckier than others.

If you have any further questions please e-mail me at "" or call me at 1-800-842-AIDS.

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