Tackling the myths and misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS

With more and more celebrities coming out as living with HIV, it’s important to note that not all of those who are speaking up are doing so out of their own choice. With celebrities being blackmailed and outed to their parents by journalists, we’re living in a time where misconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings surrounding HIV and AIDS are still rife.

One would hope that others wouldn’t feel entitled to knowing your medical history if you were living with say, ill mental health, diabetes, or an ongoing hidden disability; we accept that it is up to the individual to make the choice if, when, and how they open up. Why then, do some feel entitled to know about others HIV or AIDS diagnosis? Is our general lack of knowledge and fear playing a wider part in media coverage than we might realise? More importantly, could we be doing more to educate ourselves and others, without alienating those affected by these conditions?

Could we be doing more to stop the spread of misinformation?

What is HIV and AIDS?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the immune system, making it harder to fight off infection and disease. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the term used to describe a wide range of potentially life threatening illnesses that can happen when the immune system has been weakened by HIV.

While there is currently no cure, drug treatments mean that most people affected are able to live long, healthy lives. Thanks to early diagnosis and treatment, most with HIV are able to avoid AIDS-related illnesses.

Over 96,000 people across the UK received care for HIV in 2018. Over the past decade, the number of people accessing care for HIV has increased by 47%. People with HIV are now living longer than ever, with two in five of those accessing care and support in 2018 aged 50 or older according to recent statistics.

An estimated 92% of those with HIV are aware, with an overwhelming 90% of them receiving treatment. 97% of all people living with HIV are virally suppressed.

The number of new diagnoses of HIV has fallen for the past three years. The sooner those affected by HIV are diagnosed, the sooner they can receive treatment and support.

First discovered in the 80s, the virus wasn’t fully understood, bringing a great deal of stigma for those who received diagnosis. Back then, AIDS was a more common outcome of an HIV positive diagnosis.

While some people use both terms intermittently, each describes a different thing. HIV is a life-long virus; most who receive a diagnosis do not have AIDS. Those who do not receive treatment for HIV may go on to have AIDS, a set of serious illnesses that may eventually follow without treatment.

Discover more about the symptoms, transmission, and treatment of HIV and AIDS on Counselling Directory, read up on the World Health Organization’s latest key facts on diagnosis and treatment, or check out the NHS guide to treatment and prevention.

Common myths and misconceptions

Myths and misconceptions may sound harmless, but the more they are spread, the less likely those who are at risk are to seek a diagnosis and crucial early treatment. By spreading these misconceptions, we may unwittingly continue to make the problem worse.

But what’s fact and what’s fiction? We share some of the top misconceptions.

1. Can you catch HIV from kissing?
According to the NHS, there’s no evidence to show that HIV can be spread through saliva when kissing. It can’t be caught from giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, through sneezing or coughing, sharing baths, towels or cutlery. Nor can it be passed on through swimming pools, hugging, bug bites, sweat, sharing food, or toilet seats.

HIV can be spread through:

  • sexual intercorse (oral, anal, or vaginal sex)
  • sharing needles
  • saring sex toys
  • from mother to baby before, during, or after birth (through breastfeeding)
  • through blood transfusions or organ transplants (though this is rare in the UK)

2. Is HIV a death sentence?
While there is currently no cure, thanks to advancements in modern treatment, HIV is now considered to be manageable. It’s important to seek expert advice on treatment as soon as possible following an HIV positive diagnosis.

3. Can you get HIV from oral sex?
Yes! While it is considered to be lower risk for transmission, it is still possible.

4. Are HIV and AIDS the same thing?
Language can be a tricky thing. Just as we are learning to be more sensitive around gender pronouns and how we talk about sensitive mental health issues, it’s important to draw a distinction between HIV and AIDS.

Due to modern advancements in treatment, most people with HIV will not develop AIDS. Those who start HIV treatment early can live a near normal life.

Not sure what to say to a friend who has been diagnosed with HIV? Check out these language suggestions from The Stigma Project.

5. Can I tell if someone has HIV from looking at them?
Just as with many hidden illnesses, there is no way to tell just by looking at someone if that have HIV or not. While some people may show symptoms, others do not.

6. Can I get HIV from touching a used condom?
It’s very unlikely. Once outside of the body, HIV in semen survives for a very short space of time, meaning even if a condom were to have sperm from an infected person, it would be unlikely to pose any risk.

7. Can I avoid HIV by using the ‘pulling out’ method?
No! Pulling out before ejaculation, showering after sex, ensuring you only have sex with virgins, herbal medicine, or using the contraceptive pill all have no preventative protection. If you are sexually active, the only way to decrease your chances of invection are to consistently and correctly make sure you are using condoms and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a drug that, when taken before and after sex, can reduce the risk, though this is not widely available in the UK).

8. Do I have to worry about HIV if I’m not sleeping with men?
While HIV is more prevalent in men who have male sexual partners, it is still possible to contract HIV no matter what your sexual orientation, preferences, race, gender, or religion. If you are engaging in sexual intercorse (oral, anal, or vaginal) without using protection, you could be at risk.

9. Can HIV-positive people safely have children?
When receiving the right medication and support, newborn babies whose mothers are HIV-positive can have as low as 1% chance of the virus being passed on. Daily treatment is needed throughout pregnancy and delivery, with newborns needing to take medication for between four and six weeks following their birth. Mothers are also advised to avoid breastfeeding if they are HIV positive, as this can also transmit the virus.

10. Is HIV really a big deal?
While there have been many medical advancements in the treatment of HIV, the virus can still lead to complications. Based on the individuals age, lifestyle, and treatment, the risk of acquiring HIV and how it may affect them can vary.

If you’d like to find out more about how at risk you may be, check out the Unity Sexual Health questionnaire.

11. If my HIV test shows as negative, am I safe to have unprotected sex?
If you have had any form of unprotected sex, it can take up to three months for HIV to show in your test. Seeking a second test three months after your first one can be a good way to ensure that nothing was missed on the first test. It is always safer to use protection during intercorse, regardless of if you think you or your partner may have any sexually transmitted diseases.

Why acceptance matters

When medication is taken, it can make it virtually impossible to transmit HIV to sexual partners. While advancements in treatment and understanding have significantly improved in recent years, widespread misconceptions are a cause for concern.

More than half of men and women in 35% of countries with data on the subject have reported facing discrimination due to HIV.

Misunderstandings and misconceptions can bring about a rise in fear amongst our communities. Those who would benefit from seeking support and diagnosis may become afraid of how they will be treated by loved ones, friends, or colleagues thanks to misinformation, making them less likely to seek important early diagnosis and treatment. This can lead to further accidental transmission, and could potentially lead to developing AIDS or other related complications.

Finding help and support

If you are worried you or someone you love may have HIV, the only sure way to find out is to have a test, as symptoms can take years to appear. The sooner you get tested, the sooner you can get access to the right treatment (or can lay to rest any worries or doubts that may be causing you stress and anxiety). Provided free of charge by the NHS, many clinics can provide same day results. At home testing kids are also available. Find an NHS HIV testing clinic near you.

Other options are available. While private clinics may charge for a test, some GP surgeries, local drug dependency services, and antenatal clinics may also offer free testing. Charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust may also run clinics. Free self-sampling HIV testing kits are currently available to anyone living in England. Visit Free Testing HIV to find out more.

While HIV is no longer necessarily a life-threatening diagnosis, it is a life-long condition. Learning you are HIV-positive is bound to have an emotional and psychological impact. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, receiving a diagnosis may seem like it is making symptoms worse. Adjusting to news of a diagnosis can be tough no matter how mentally or emotionally resilient you may feel you are.

Joining a support group or trying group therapy may be beneficial, as this can offer the opportunity to speak with others who are going through similar issues or situations. To discover more about the benefits of group therapy, visit Counselling Directory.