1. HIV and AIDS are the same thing
HIV and AIDS are often used interchangeably in the media and society often finds it difficult to tell them apart. But HIV and AIDS aren’t the same thing!
HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that infects a person and attacks the immune system. People can live with HIV without having any symptoms for many years. If they start treatment, they may never have visible symptoms of the infection.
AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is the disease that develops later in people with HIV that remain untreated. It’s the stage of HIV infection where the symptoms usually appear. A person is said to have AIDS when their T CD4 count (a key type of immune system cells) falls below 200 or their immune system is so weakened that it makes them vulnerable to opportunistic infections, illnesses and cancers (which cause the symptoms).
But thanks to advances in HIV treatment, most people with HIV will never have AIDS as their immune systems are kept protected by the treatment and viral load is kept so low.
2. HIV and AIDS are a death sentence
Forty years ago the death rate from AIDS was very high and there were very few treatment options available. HOWEVER, nowadays there are advanced treatment options and AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence, but a manageable chronic illness.
A study published in the Lancet HIV in 2017 states that on average, a 20-year old with HIV who began treatment immediately will have a life expectancy of 78 years, very close to a normal life expectancy. That’s why it is important to start treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis and maintain it throughout, for optimum long term health.
People living with HIV, similarly to people without HIV; can implement good habits to improve health, such as stopping smoking, exercising more and eating healthy.
3. HIV and AIDS can be caught from food sources, casual human contact and insect bites
HIV can only be transmitted through a direct exchange of body fluids such as semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk or blood.
Other body fluids such as saliva, sweat and tears cannot transmit HIV. It is extremely unlikely to contract HIV from kissing as HIV is not spread through saliva, but if the person has a sore or bleeding gums then there is an elevated risk, however overall transmission through kissing is extremely rare.
HIV cannot be spread through physical contact so shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, using the same toilet seat and normal casual human contact does not transmit HIV. Knowing this can reduce the stigma attached to a diagnosis of HIV.
4. People living with HIV look and feel sick
Some people get a short “flu-like” illness when they first contract HIV but most people don’t feel or look sick at all. It can take many years for some people with HIV to feel sick and start developing symptoms (see Myth Number 1 on HIV and AIDS).
However, while not visible, their immune system is becoming weaker, so early detection and treatment is key to ensure people living with HIV can live a healthy life.
That’s why regular testing for HIV in all sexually active people is so important.
5. HIV medications do more harm than good
WRONG. This is a dangerous and harmful myth.
HIV medication has side effects, but there is overwhelming evidence that treatment save lives. The HIV medications available today have cut death rates from AIDS by around 80%. HIV medications keep people alive and healthy and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. HIV treatments prevent the disease from moving from one stage to the next and developing into AIDS.
There are of course challenges with HIV medications: HIV treatment can be expensive in some countries, and similar to treatments for other chronic diseases, it can be challenging for the person to take the treatment every day. However, HIV treatment works and keeps the person healthy.
6. HIV only affects homosexual men
HIV is transmitted through an exchange of body fluids, this means ANYONE who comes into contact with fluids such as semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk or blood, can potentially contract the virus. Today, the majority of HIV positive people in the world contracted HIV through heterosexual sex.
The risk of contracting HIV is not about who you are, it’s about what you do. People who have unprotected sex with someone whose status they don’t know are potentially putting themselves at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
7. It’s OK to have unprotected sex if both partners have HIV.
There are different strains of HIV and a partner may have a different strain. Acquiring a new strain can make the treatment a lot more difficult and limit treatment option, particularly if a strain is resistant to certain HIV medication. It is recommended to continue to practice safe sex even among partners where both live with HIV.
8. It is not possible to have sex with a person living with HIV without contracting the virus.
Research in the Lancet and NEJM has shown multiple times that in people with HIV who are consistently taking their medication and have undetectable HIV viral load, HIV is not transmittable. This study looked at both heterosexual and homosexual relations.
9. Women who are living with HIV will transmit HIV to their babies
Without treatment, the risk of transmission from mother to baby varies around an average of 25%. If the mother starts treatment early in pregnancy and has an undetectable viraul load by the time of birth, the risk of the baby getting HIV is reduced to less than 1%.
Currently, 82% of HIV positive pregnant women are receiving lifesaving treatment, which will prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
All pregnant women should be tested for HIV.
The virus can also be transmitted through breast milk, however mother and baby can take medication to prevent the infection from passing to the baby through breastfeeding.
10. There is a cure for HIV
While recent media news have published stories of the second patient to have been ‘cured’ of HIV, health experts are cautioning that the treatment used in this patient and the famous “Berlin” patient, is considered very risky and cannot be practically applied to all people living with HIV.
Although there is no present cure, current treatment with antiretrovirals allows people living with HIV to have healthy lives with the same life expectancy as those who don’t have HIV.