Even though HIV isn’t new, there are still so many questions about how it’s spread, the treatment and the people most at risk. Misconceptions and myths are everywhere, so it’s important to know the facts. Know how. Know now.
We’ve busted 13 myths about HIV:
1. MYTH: You can get HIV just by being around HIV-positive individuals in your daily life.
REALITY: False. HIV is transmitted when infected material (blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk) comes in direct contact with a mucous membrane (mouth, vagina, anus), damaged tissue, or is injected directly into the bloodstream. HIV is not spread by kissing, hugging, sharing food/drink, toilet seats, sneezes/coughs, sweat, touching, or through insect bites. Believing these myths about HIV transmission increases stigma for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Learn more about how HIV is spread.
2. MYTH: HIV can be cured.
REALITY: False. There is no cure for HIV. With treatment, HIV-positive individuals can control the virus and live long, healthy lives. With the appropriate medication and treatment regimen, HIV-positive individuals can lower the amount of HIV in their system to “undetectable” levels, however the virus is still present. There is one case where an individual, Timothy Brown, has been seemingly cured of HIV, but little is understood about this case and no study has been able to replicate the results. Learn more about undetectable viral loads in this article. For more on the myths surrounding “cures” for HIV, check out this piece from Avert.org.
3. MYTH: HIV is a gay man’s disease.
REALITY: False. Here’s the truth, HIV does not discriminate against age, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or any other identifier. The epidemic of the 1980s centered largely around gay men, and gay/bisexual men are still impacted by HIV at rates higher than heterosexual individuals. However, heterosexual women, in particular women of color, represent one of the fastest-growing rates of infection in the United States. To believe that HIV only impacts gay men is to ignore the truth of the epidemic and puts you and others at risk. Explore The Body’s index of personal stories to read about men and women from all walks of life who are living with HIV.
4. MYTH: Being diagnosed with HIV is a death sentence.
REALITY: False. When the epidemic rose to national consciousness in the United States in the 1980s, little was understood about the virus, how it was transmitted, or how to treat it. As a result of this lack of knowledge, combined with the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, many of those who were diagnosed died. More than 30 years’ worth of research later, things have changed dramatically. Not only do we understand how the virus functions, we have gotten much better at treating it. For some individuals who test positive, there is the possibility of taking one pill, once a day to manage their HIV. People living with HIV can live long, healthy, productive lives by following their medication and treatment regimen. For individuals who do not have HIV, we have to learn the facts and help end the stigma that still exists some 30 years later. Listen to an interview on The Scope about advancements in HIV care.
5. MYTH: It is the sole responsibility of HIV-positive individuals to initiate safe sex.
REALITY: False. You and you alone are in charge of your own sexual health. It is the responsibility of each and every individual, regardless of their HIV status, to set boundaries, identify limits, and implement the safe sex strategies that they have chosen for themselves. These strategies might include: condom use, PrEP, testing, etc. South Carolina law does require HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to sexual partners, however, HIV-negative individuals should learn the facts and actively work to fight the stigma around HIV/AIDS to help foster space and culture where HIV status disclosure is less difficult. Even if you do not have HIV, you are responsible for maintaining the many aspects of your sexual health. For more information on different aspects of sexual health and resources for each, check out the CDC’s website.
6. MYTH: Promiscuity and drug addiction are the root cause of the HIV epidemic.
REALITY: False. This myth is a particularly damaging one. While unprotected sex and IV drug use are the two most common forms of HIV transmission, there is far more to the equation than these two variables. Buying into this myth implies that you think every person with HIV/AIDS (of the 36.9 million living with HIV/AIDS globally) is either carelessly promiscuous or addicted to drugs. That is problematic on a number of levels, as it also implies that you believe HIV is a punishment for these behaviors. In reality, preventing HIV is not as simple as promoting abstinence and refraining from drug use. Stigma, policing behaviors, and preventing education around safer sex and drug use practices are actually far more detrimental to prevention efforts. If we cannot have conversations about sex and drug use at all, how can we talk about how to create a safer culture? Is it any wonder, then, that one in seven people living with HIV don’t know they have the virus? For more information on the fight for inclusive, comprehensive sexual health education in Charleston County Schools, visit the Charleston County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council’s website.
7. MYTH: I’m married/in a monogamous relationship so there’s no point in getting tested or using condoms.
REALITY: False. Knowing your status and your partner’s status on an ongoing basis is the only way to know for sure whether you are at risk of contracting HIV or other STIs. Unfortunately, we can only control our own behavior. While we never want to think about infidelity in the context of a monogamous relationship, the reality is sometimes this happens. Couples in monogamous relationships can think of testing as an exercise in building trust and expressing love for their partner. We see many couples who have been together for years who come to LAS for testing an annual or bi-annual basis. Read more about the World Health Organizations recommendations around couples testing and counseling for HIV.
8. MYTH: Having sex with someone who is HIV positive means you will contract HIV.
REALITY: False. Our understanding of HIV has come a long way with over 35 years of research, and with it, so has our understanding of how to prevent HIV transmission. Having sex with someone who is HIV-positive while you are negative and staying negative is completely possible. By learning the facts about transmission, risk factors, and preventative measures, individuals with mixed HIV statuses can have healthy, hot sexual lives while reducing the risk of transmission. Used properly, condoms reduce the chance of transmission by over 90%. Add to that an HIV-positive partner with an undetectable viral load and the knowledge of sexual risk factors and you have all you need to have great, safe sex. Learn more about your options and safer sex strategies with Avert’s mixed status couple handout.
9. MYTH: I can tell if someone is HIV-positive.
REALITY: False. No, you cannot. One in seven people living with HIV don’t even know they are infected. There is no way to look at a person and determine whether they have HIV or another STD. Oftentimes, when people make this statement, they are implying that someone’s behaviors can reveal their HIV status. This is also false. While some behaviors are riskier than others in terms of HIV transmission and infection, there is only one way to know your status or another person’s and that is to test and have open conversation. It is, in fact, the stigma and sweeping of these conversations and topics under the proverbial rug that keep fueling the epidemic. If you want to know your own status, get tested. If you want to know someone else’s status, ask and encourage them to get tested. These conversations are what will help us end the epidemic. Read more about HIV testing at LAS or watch this video to see how simple it is to get a free, confidential HIV test.
10. MYTH: PrEP is an excuse for people to have unprotected sex.
REALITY: False. There is a lot of miscommunication out there about PrEP and its intended use. PrEP is an excellent tool to help prevent HIV infection and it is something someone can elect to take for a number of reasons. For example, if one partner in a relationship is positive, the negative partner may elect to take PrEP as an extra preventative measure. Individuals who know they are engaging in higher risk behaviors may also elect to take PrEP as a preventative measure. PrEP has proven to dramatically reduce the chance of HIV transmission and infection, but it does not protect against other STDs, and so it is recommended as an addition to condom use and other prevention strategies. Learn more about PrEP from the Centers for Disease Control.
11. MYTH: My partner and I are both positive so we don’t need to use condoms.
REALITY: False. If both partners are positive, it may make sense to think that you don’t need to use condoms, but there are several things to consider. First and foremost, a regiment of antiretroviral therapy (ART) will not protect you from unwanted pregnancy or other STDs. Condoms will. Additionally, it is possible for an HIV-positive individual to become infected with a second strain of HIV, which is called HIV reinfection. Being infected with another strain of HIV could potentially cause regiment failure and send your treatment plan into a spiral. For more information on reinfection, read this article from The Body.
12. MYTH: I’m too old to worry about something like HIV.
REALITY: False. HIV does not discriminate against age, gender, race, sexual orientation, class, or any other identifier. Age doesn’t stop people from having sex and if you are having sex, then you are at some risk of contracting HIV or other STDs. In fact, research shows that individuals infected later in life are more likely to be diagnosed at a later/more progressive stage of the virus. The same goes for STDs. In fact, reports show that STD and HIV infections are on the rise for people over 50 because of this myth. Learn more about the aging population with HIV from the CDC.
13. MYTH: Being HIV-positive means I can never have children.
REALITY: False. Yes, HIV is spread via unprotected sex, but as our understanding of the virus has grown, so has our understanding of how to prevent transmission. It is possible for you to still have children while living with HIV. There are several different options to consider for conception depending on which partner is positive. For more information on planning for conception while living with HIV, check out aidsmap’s helpful resource page on the topic.