With the lack of HIV education out there, and with the pandemic largely off the public radar, it's no surprise that we come across many HIV myths. When AIDS first showed up, very little was known about it: There were many questions, but few answers, so people started making up their own. Over the last three decades, many of these myths have grown and still thrive today, despite plenty of evidence that they are not true.
1. HIV/AIDS Is a Death Sentence
Contrary to popular belief, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is no guarantee of a shorter lifespan. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was little to no treatment available and the AIDS death rate was very high.
Fortunately, with the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in the late '90s, the health and life expectancy of people living with HIV has improved dramatically. If you keep up with your meds and take care of your body by eating right and exercising, there's no reason you can't live a long, healthy life with HIV.
2. There Is a Cure for HIV
Much of this stems from the belief that Magic Johnson is cured. He is not. There is no practical cure for HIV. and no, neither the government nor the pharmaceutical industry created a cure that they are hiding.
To date, Timothy Brown is the only man to have been cured of HIV, which was a result of an extremely risky stem cell transplant from a donor who had a very specific HIV-resistant mutation in his CD4 cells. This "functional cure" was a perfect storm of events and would be very difficult to repeat.
While the many HIV antiretrovirals available today have saved millions of lives, in order for us to beat HIV, more funding and research need to go toward finding a cure.
3. HIV Antiretrovirals Do More Harm Than Good
Yes, there are downsides to HIV medications: They can cause unwanted side effects. They're expensive and can be a burden to take every day for the rest of your life. You can even grow resistant to certain medications and need to switch.
But treatment saves lives. Today's medications have cut the death rate from AIDS by about 80%. Until a practical cure is found, HIV medication is the best bet for keeping people alive and well -- and for reducing the risk of an HIV-positive person transmitting the virus to others.
4. Straight People Don't Get HIV
HIV is not a gay disease. Men can infect women, and women can infect men. HIV does not discriminate. In fact, the majority of HIV-positive people in the world became positive through heterosexual sex.
Risk is not about who you are; it's about what you do. People who have unprotected sex with someone whose status they don't definitely, unequivocally know is HIV negative, are potentially putting themselves at risk for HIV.
5. If You're in a Monogamous Relationship or Married, You Won't Get HIV A person can live with HIV for many years without showing any symptoms; make sure you conclusively know your partner's HIV status before having unprotected sex.
Even then, be careful. In an ideal scenario, both partners in a relationship would remain faithful and neither would ever get HIV. But cheating happens. This applies to all people, no matter what gender, sexuality, creed or ethnicity.
So don't confuse love for safety: Unless you both test negative outside of the 12-week window period after last possible exposure, and are with each other 24 hours a day, there's still a possibility you can get HIV from your partner.
6. You Can Use Alternative Medicines to Treat or Cure HIV
Ozone, coconut milk, vitamin C, yoga, homeopathy: These are just a few of the things that some "expert" or another has claimed can cure HIV. But they can't make HIV go away.
Robert Frascino, M.D., puts it best in his blog post debunking alternative medicines: "Simply put, alternative medicine (taking an alternate treatment in place of combination antiretroviral treatment -- as opposed to complementary therapies taken alongside antiretrovirals, and under the supervision of an HIV physician specialist) uses therapies that are unproven, usually anecdotal, frequently deceptive and often downright dangerous." Be careful whenever claims seem too good to be true!
7. If You're on Birth Control, You Can't Get HIV
HIV can be spread during any unprotected sex. Birth control pills protect against unwanted pregnancies, but they do not protect you against HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease. In fact, a recent study found birth control medication to be associated with increased HIV risk.
For now, a condom is the only form of birth control that also offers scientifically proven protection against HIV.
8. You Can't Have a Baby if You're HIV Positive
This may be one of the saddest myths to persist to the present day. Mother-to-child HIV transmission has been all but eliminated in resource-rich areas of the globe, and aggressive programs are afoot to end the phenomenon worldwide. Meanwhile, effective, tolerable HIV meds are making it possible for parents to watch their children grow to adulthood and beyond.
This is excellent news, yet many outside the HIV community have no idea it's true. Whether you're an HIV-positive man or woman, and whether you're part of a mixed-status relationship or one in which both you and your partner are living with HIV, there are a number of options available for you to safely have a baby without transmitting HIV to your partner or your child.
9. It's OK to Have Unprotected Sex if You and Your Partner Are Both Positive
Many people are unaware of superinfection (reinfection), which is defined as infection by a second strain of HIV. Even if you contracted HIV from your current partner, HIV can evolve differently in each person's body; if it mutates, a different strain can emerge in your body than in your partner's.
Superinfection with a drug-resistant strain of HIV can limit treatment options.
Having an undetectable viral load does greatly lower the risk of transmission between an HIV-positive person and his or her partner. But unprotected sex between two positive partners still carries a risk for HIV superinfection, not to mention other sexually transmitted diseases.
10. HIV Can Be Spread Through Tears, Sweat, Mosquitoes, Swimming Pools ...
Kissing, hugging, shaking hands, sitting on toilet seats, sharing utensils, touching dried blood: All are thought by many to be risks for HIV, but they are not.
When it comes to common myths about HIV, transmission myths take the cake -- and they fuel HIV stigma, which makes the entire pandemic worse. Here are 10 of the most common fears about HIV
Now that you know the truth behind many HIV myths, help us put an end to them once and for all: Pass along what you've learned; educate your friends and loved ones on HIV and encourage discussion about the facts.