Similar to the coronavirus and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020, many of the misconceptions and stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS have been fueled by fear. Although information surrounding the disease is more accessible now that we’re months into the pandemic, many people still misunderstand the condition, the treatment options, and how it is passed from one individual to another. In recognition of World AIDS Day, here is a primer on both HIV and AIDS, including some of the frequently asked questions that still surround the illness.
How is HIV/AIDS spread?
Misconception: HIV/AIDS can spread through touch or bodily fluids like tears, sweat, saliva or urine.
Fact Check: Breathing the same air, drinking from the same water fountain or touching the same surface as someone with the virus does not put you at risk for the illness. Hugging, kissing, shaking hands, sharing eating utensils or using exercise equipment at a gym with someone with HIV also does not spread the disease. You can only contract HIV through blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Several studies have also shown mosquitoes cannot spread HIV; they do not inject the blood of others into you, and the virus does not live long inside of them.
Who can get HIV/AIDS?
Misconception: Only gay people can get HIV.
Fact Check: While gay men make up two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., numerous other populations are also affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 24% of new HIV infections each year occur in heterosexuals with heterosexual Black women making up the largest portion of that population.
While anal sex is the riskiest form of sex for spreading HIV because of the potential transfer of bodily fluids, oral sex can also put a person at risk for the illness. Condoms and medications that lower levels of HIV within the body to non-detectable levels (like PreP) can drastically help to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
Homophobia, stigma against the gay community and lack of resources and education on prevention and transmission are also still among the leading contributors of infection among LGBTQ individuals — especially among Black and Hispanic/Latinx men who have sex with men, where infection rates remain the highest. When men and women are afraid to come out for fear of reaction from their friends, family, employer or community, it can lead to riskier sexual activities, fear of testing, lack of education and proper preventative practices, as well as lower-quality care and treatment for those who do test positive for the illness.
How deadly is HIV/AIDS?
Misconception: HIV is a death sentence.
Fact Check: HIV is a chronic illness that currently has no cure. However, medical advances have allowed people to live long lives with the virus as long as they manage it properly with the care and assistance of physicians. While AIDS was a leading cause of death among adults 25-44 years of age in the 1980s and early 1990s (because people with HIV or AIDs died approximately a decade sooner than people without the disease), by the early 2000s, death rates had dropped considerably.
Today, treatment options have progressed so significantly that people with HIV who successfully manage their illness can live just as long as people without HIV — studies have found no significant difference in the lifespan between the two groups. The hope to find a cure for the illness continues to improve as well. Timothy Ray Brown, formerly known as the “Berlin Patient,” is considered to be the first person ever cured of HIV infection. Brown underwent a stem cell transplant in 2007 to treat leukemia — a procedure that also helped to rid his body of HIV. He lived for more than a decade HIV-free before sadly passing away from leukemia in September 2020. Numerous other promising trials and drug treatments are currently underway, with researchers at places like Temple University in Philadelphia saying they are close to finally finding the cure for the disease in the near future.
How can you tell if someone has HIV/AIDS?
Misconception: You can tell if someone has HIV or AIDS by looking at them.
Fact Check: You cannot tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. Additionally, some people do not show symptoms of HIV for years. The only way to know for sure is to take a test.
Does HIV/AIDS treatment make the virus “un-spreadable”?
Misconception: People getting treatment for HIV don’t need to use protection.
Fact Check: The true answer is a bit more complex. HIV treatment can make the virus undetectable in the blood, making it effectively not spreadable, but people must take HIV medication daily exactly as prescribed to achieve this undetectable viral load — or the amount of the virus that’ll show up in a standard lab test. Most people who are vigilant with their medication will achieve an undetectable viral load within six months. Additionally, some studies suggest that if both members of a couple have HIV, they should still practice safe sex to prevent other, more treatment-resistant strains of the virus from spreading. Ultimately, although the treatment itself has shown to be effective prevention, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider to determine the potential risks of spreading HIV to a partner during treatment.
Is contracting HIV/AIDS the patient’s fault?
Misconception: People with HIV are dirty, reckless or deviant.
Fact Check: These and other moral claims about people with HIV are not only inaccurate but also lead to discrimination. There are precautions people should take to prevent HIV transmission, but it can happen to anyone, regardless of race, class or sexual orientation. Equating people of certain races, classes or sexual orientations with the disease is racist and ill-informed.
The stigma is harmful and can lead to serious ramifications. It can lead to HIV-positive people failing to seek treatment while suffering from other health issues such as mental illness. Regardless of someone’s HIV status, we are all still worthy of respect and dignity.