6 Common Myths About HIV & AIDS, Busted Once And For All

Last week, to mark World AIDS Day, a shocking new survey was released in the UK which found that a huge proportion of the population still believes myths about HIV and AIDS that, according to the organization that mounted it, "endure from the 1980s." We've moved a long way since then — communities across the United States and UK were devastated by the AIDS epidemic in the '80s, but raising awareness and better treatment have kept many younger people, both LGBTQ and otherwise, safe — but clearly old prejudices die hard.

If you don't remember your health lessons from school (or have had the blessing of never having a loved one be diagnosed), HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that spreads through bodily fluid transmission and attacks the body's ability to defend itself against threats and viruses. AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, occurs when HIV has developed to a stage that the immune system of the body is deeply affected and keeps succumbing to "opportunistic illnesses." With big advances in treatment, people who are HIV-positive and get treatment quickly are likely to have excellent quality of life and many years of good health; but the social stigma of the disease and the many myths associated with it remain.

Let's tell some misconceptions to stuff it — and bust these common myths about HIV and AIDS once and for all.

"All Bodily Fluids Can Transmit HIV"

This is one of the myths that was particularly revealed in the new UK survey: about one third of the surveyed people believed that you could catch HIV by sharing a toothbrush from an HIV-positive person. This stems from a fundamental confusion about what bodily fluids actually contain the HIV virus and so can transmit it to another person under the correct circumstances.

HIV is not spread through saliva. You can't get it from sweat, either. It only shows up in blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breastmilk. So no, there is no such thing as transmission from toilet seats, wearing the same clothes, touching, breathing the same air, or even kissing; it's only possible to transfer the illness if the people kissing also have open sores and bleeding in the mouth and manage to transmit it that way. (Very unlikely.)

"You Can Get HIV From Insect Bites"

This one makes absolutely no sense if you think about it for more than three seconds. There has never been a recorded case of HIV spread via mosquitoes, because, as the HIV-AIDS awareness organization AVERT notes, "when an insect (such as a mosquito) bites you it sucks your blood — it does not inject the blood of the last person it bit." Any HIV-positive blood that a mosquito might ingest from one human will not find its way into the skin of any further person that it bites, mostly because of the multi-structured pattern of mosquito mouthparts. HIV is also only present in the tiny quantity of blood taken from a mosquito bite in minuscule levels, insufficient to create an infection in somebody else.

"People With HIV And AIDS Seem Sick"

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Many of us watched Tom Hanks' Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia and perhaps came away with the impression that both HIV and AIDS are immediately obvious: thinness, lesions, appearances of "being sick," and other things. It's a prejudice that's been percolating in the consciousness of the world for years, and it remains as wrong now as it was when beautiful blonde American Mary Fisher revealed her HIV-positive status to the Republican National Convention in 1992. Not only is HIV not immediately obvious, it is not confined to gay men, nor to any race or sexuality. Healthline also points out that symptoms can, in some people, stay latent for up to 10 years after infection before appearing.

"Pregnant Women With HIV Automatically Pass It Down To Their Kids"

HIV can indeed be passed from mother to child during or after pregnancy; but thanks to new treatment, the risk can be hugely minimized. According to the American Pregnancy Association, "If the mother does not receive treatment, 25 percent of babies born to women with HIV will be infected by the virus. With treatment that percentage can be reduced to less than 2 percent."

This is one of the great unsung victories of HIV-AIDS treatment, and treatment includes everything from particular drugs for the mother to specific health plans focussed on strengthening the placenta, which protects the fetus from infection, and emphasizing Caesarians (which are a good way to reduce transmission during birth).

"HIV Remains A Death Sentence"

The realities of HIV-positive life can be difficult, but the development of powerful antiretrovirals has greatly improved the quality of life of everybody with the disease and extended their possible lifespan by decades. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Treatments for HIV called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) can improve and extend the lives of many people who are HIV-positive. HAART can reduce the amount of virus in your blood to a level so low that it doesn’t show up in blood tests. HAART can keep you healthy for many years, and greatly reduce your chance of transmitting HIV if taken consistently and correctly."

The HAART "cocktail," however, is only the most common combination of a number of different medications available, all of which are based around strengthening the immune system, flattening virus levels and generally keeping HIV and AIDS patients capable of a normal life.

"HIV-Positive People Shouldn't Have Sex With HIV-Negative People"

The realities for people with HIV and AIDS are much less ominous than they were a few decades ago. People with HIV or the degenerative immune system that creates AIDS need to take many precautions for sexual contact, but they're not completely warned off doing it altogether.

The National AIDS Trust has extensive guidelines for relationships between HIV positive and negative people: HIV-positive partners should "start and stay on antiretroviral therapy, which can reduce your viral load to an undetectable level, eliminating the risk of you transmitting HIV to your partner," partners should always use condoms, and the HIV-negative partner should consider taking PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis drugs, which work to greatly reduce the risk of contracting HIV. The combination of antiretrovirals, PrEP and vigilance can mean a genuinely awesome sex life.

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